Eden Casteel Music Studio

Voice, Piano and Performance in Rhode Island and Everywhere

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What I'm Doing Now

As of August 5, I am . . .

1. Slowly preparing for college (as a teacher, and as the mom of a freshman leaving the nest)

2. Rehearsing the sixth and final Quonnie The Musical with my talented young cast

 

3. Celebrating another birthday (along with Loni Anderson and Patrick Ewing)

     

 

 

I hope you're having a great week!

What I'm doing now

As of June 10, 2016 I am . . .

Writing down songs I might use in the sixth production of Quonnie The Musical

Typing out lyrics to memorize for my June 25 concert (info right here)

Scraping a badly painted deck so it can be repainted

Preparing to cry at my son's high school graduation

Inspired by Cait Flanders.

 

Laura Lee Hickfang, RIP

I recently sang at the memorial service for Laura Lee Hickfang, the wife of my late voice teacher Prof. Paul Hickfang. Laura Lee died in April after a short illness. Teenaged Laura Lee Green, about ten years after her first piano recital

Her obituary and her eulogizers described her as a true Southern Belle. She was all that and more, a tiny little Texan with prodigious musical talent, perfect pitch (a gift we shared and joked about), occasional dark moods, occasional wicked sarcasm, and a heart full of loyalty and love. Even though her husband was a fellow Texan, she always sounded far more Texan to me. She called her husband Paaaaahooul.

(I was also blessed to have an Arkansan as my piano teacher. I think I will always associate great musicians and teachers with Southern accents.)

When I arrived for a lesson at the baby grand in their living room, Laura Lee was almost always in the downstairs den of their split level home, watching a soap or whatever was on WCMH at four o'clock on a weekday. The two of them shared custody of the piano and taught their private lessons at different times. Laura Lee had the much larger private studio, and in retrospect I was probably making noise in her living room on her rare day off. She didn't disturb our lessons and we didn’t disturb her shows.

Prof. Hickfang was a survival-level pianist. He met Laura Lee when they were grad students at University of Texas at Austin. She was his piano teacher -- for a little while. He broke up with his serious girlfriend and started courting Laura Lee. Terrible pedagogy, but smart move. If you can't play piano, get a fantastic pianist to marry you.

Mr. and Mrs. Musician

So, at voice lessons, he would play the opening few notes of whatever song I was working on, and maybe a quick arpeggiated chord. Then he would grab a pencil and start conducting the beat, expecting me to just sing a cappella. For a girl with perfect pitch, this was no problem. It was a good system for us.

Occasionally, though, he wanted me to practice with accompaniment. And so he would stretch his 6-foot-7-inch frame from the piano bench, and pad (shoeless but sock-clad) over to the entrance to the finished basement, and supplicate his wife.

"Laura Lee? Could you come play this aria for Eden?"

(Long pause. The sound of shuffling.)

"Ahool rahgt, ah'll be there in a mihhnute."

And up she would come, all five feet of her. She walked over to her beautiful dark brown Steinway (covered with an elegant brass piano lamp, a Mexican serape, a metronome, a bust of Beethoven, and growing mounds of piano books), and sat down. She adjusted her glasses, and began to play whatever was put in front of her, flawlessly. Prof. Hickfang would try to conduct her, too, and it was fascinating to watch them work together on music. They were a true team. She would play about once a year for me, at most. She never told me what she thought of my singing. I just knew it was a very special occasion when she would play for me.

Every other summer or so, Prof. Hickfang would tell me he couldn't schedule a lesson with me for a few weeks, because it was time to take Laura Lee to Texas. Her very best friends were a group of girls she had known since kindergarten. They would reunite about every other year to catch up, while the husbands played cards together. I wondered what it would be like to be that loyal a friend for so long, and what kind of spouse would follow his wife to a girls’ weekend every two summers. Most husbands would stay home.

Paul and Laura Lee, incognito

When Prof. Hickfang died in 2009, I was one of three singers who sang at his funeral. I sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's Messiah. I got through all of it, all those pages, and then I was down to my last few bars: "For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep." Sopranos know there is a lovely G-sharp on the word "risen," and it's usually held an extra beat or so, to make the point. I nailed the G-sharp, held it an extra beat, and then thought, "Oh, he would have loved that." And then I thought it again, "Oh, he would have loved that," and began to feel my lip tremble. I made it through the final phrase and began to weep immediately as I closed my music. I couldn't stand the reception and went home.

The next day there was a voice mail on my parents' machine. "Deeeear Eden, it's Laura Lee," she began. "Ah wanted to thank yeeeuw for singing soooh beayutifully yesterday. You were a little off pitch on a few notes, but overall, it was very good. Ah miss him very much, but ah know that Pahool is in Heaven now. Love to yeeu and your family." That was so her. A combination of love, sweetness, and a little pedagogical advice.

As a widow, she threw herself back into her piano teaching, the cornerstone of her life for over 50 years. We stayed in touch. We had lunch, I sent Christmas cards. She got a cute little dog, and her children Gary, Carrie Lee, and Chase began to spend more time in the house with her. Her eyesight got worse and she had to stop teaching. It was a terrible but necessary step.

Last June, with her health declining, she was moved to a nursing home. I visited her there. She was very unhappy that day and kept asking Chase to take her home, but she knew who I was and she was able to keep up with the conversation. I helped her grab her walker and we shuffled around the facility, and when I left her she was sitting happily with some residents, cuddling with her cute dog, and giving me a kiss goodbye.

Once a pianist, always a pianist.

I drove back to the home she had left. The house was being readied for sale. The Steinway sat in the corner of the empty living room, and the piano lamp was still sitting on top. The serape was folded.  Chase told me to take whatever sheet music I wanted, voice and piano, from the stacks that still remained. I took as much as my car could carry. The lamp now illuminates my own baby grand piano in my own living room. I tried to bring them both with me.

Carrie Lee called me the morning her mother died, and asked me to sing at her memorial. Of course, I said. Then, I promptly contracted a terrible cold (or a slightly less terrible flu, not sure which). I went through boxes of Kleenex as I packed my suitcase. I was feverish. My ears were blocked. I took Dayquil and Nyquil. I ached all over. I chose two songs that I thought I could sing in any circumstance (cold, jet lagged, and/or grieving) and hoped for the best.

Laura Lee's memorial was held at the same church where her husband's was. The organist pointed out the place where they had sat together for services. I said hello to Rickie and Jim, the other former students who had come to sing. We rehearsed quickly with Rose Zuber, the excellent pianist who had played for all of us five years before, and I managed to keep my sniffles and coughing at bay. I decided to just focus on technique, in order to get through the service physically. I also rationalized that since I had cried a river  at Prof. Hickfang's funeral, I'd probably manage to be dry-eyed for Laura Lee.

I got up and sang the Bach/Gounod version of Ave Maria. I've sung it at countless funerals. I kept my composure by refusing to look at anyone in the family row. A few minutes later I got up and sang "Pie Jesu" from the Faure Requiem.

[audio mp3="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/My-Song.mp3"][/audio]

I don't sing it at enough funerals. It's such a lovely piece. I could see the Latin text going by in my head, and the English translation. Dona eis requiem . . . grant them rest. Them. And I suddenly realized, I'm not singing for her, I'm singing for them. The two of them. The thought filled me with great happiness. I'm singing the two of them to Heaven. The reunion is complete. I finished the song, smiling. Wow!, I thought. I'm not crying! It's like I'm a professional or something! And then I sat down, and began to weep, and did not stop. Didn't even try.

There was one more song. Rose, a friend to the Hickfangs for decades, played Debussy's Clair De Lune. It was a perfect tribute: Brilliant, heartfelt, demanding, emotional, and filled with beauty. And we all cried, knowing that while the music was coming from Rose's capable hands, it was Laura Lee we were hearing, for the last time.

[audio m4a="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/11-Track-11.m4a"][/audio]

When the service was over, people came over to me and said I sounded wonderful, and they meant it. I was flattered.

In Heaven, I dearly hope the reviews were mixed.

Happily ever after

Eden's Ins and Outs for 2015

Eden's INs and OUTs for 2015 IN: Reading books OUT: Reading minds

IMG_0440

High quality audio and video recordings of music lessons for my students Relying on hazy memory

Diaries Facebook statuses

Running the 2015 NYC Marathon with my husband (yes, I am) Sleeping in

Charcoal gray as a neutral Brown anything (I only like brown as mulch)

Regular online voice lessons Irregular in-person lessons

Improv classes Half-assing

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Confidence Guilt

Helping my students learn more music theory and history Assuming they're learning it elsewhere

Fearless graying Real Housewives Hair

Trackr Bravo Missing cats

Low sugar cuisine New pants

Guest organ stints Cantoring

Christmas caroling at our annual cookie party!

Small ensemble choral singing Cyber choirs

Dave Ramsey Debt

Making my home studio beautiful and welcoming Schlepping all over the Ocean State

What? Me, drive?

Driver's Ed Texting

Daily prayer Worrying

RINATS No NATS

Kvetching Gratitude

Samaritan's Purse Kate Spade

Age appropriate performances Musical Jail Bait 

Massages for health Toughing it out

Learning how to audition in a challenging environment Giving up

Traveling Netflix

Deadlines To-do lists

Resolved: Cuddle ALL THE CATS

Blogging more Blogging less

HAPPY NEW YEAR, my Eight Blog Readers! XO EC

How To Carry A Tune In A Bucket

  Sad.

More "Terrible Singers" lists later, but first . . . .

Q: Is It true that some people can't carry a tune in a bucket? Are some people born not to sing?

A: NO. Some people are born with a natural ability to sing, and some aren't. But everyone can learn, everyone can improve. Everyone can sing. 

I'll add to that: I think everyone WANTS to sing.

I recently worked with a gentleman who was finally taking voice lessons for the first time ever. He loved music but had no idea how to make his voice work. "Mom said I sounded best when I kept my mouth shut!" he said with a steely laugh. The joking masked real frustration and pain at not being able to sing like he wanted. He couldn't reach high notes, and couldn't find the low notes. He could hear and recognize a melody, but he couldn't get his voice to follow it. So he made sound wherever sound could be made, even if that meant singing the same same couple of notes over and over again, like a drone.

In childhood, he was not an accurate singer, but he was loud -- until he was told to shut up. He was made to stand in the back of the group, to step away from the microphone. He mouthed the words of the carol, while everyone else actually sang. In adulthood, he sang with bar bands and in ad-hoc groups, and tolerated the jokes and razzing when his bad singing was noticed. No one cared how he sang "Sweet Caroline." But then came something awful and wonderful: His child sang with freedom and accuracy and happiness, and he longed to have that same joy. Finally, the pain of singing poorly was greater than the pain of judgment.

For the technically challenged singer, just taking a voice lesson is an incredible leap of faith. My job is to reward that trust with gentle, supportive coaching on breathing, pitch matching, and listening. We focus on making accurate sounds, strengthening the connections between brain and ears, throat and lungs. I make sure the abdominal muscles aren't too tight or too loose to support a tone. I use a tuner to help pitch-challenged ears locate and match the sounds I play on the piano, or the tones I sing (some singers can hear voices better than they hear pianos). Progress can be quick, but usually it's slow and fitful -- a few extra notes here, a little more freedom there. I record the lessons so the singers realize they are, in fact, progressing. They are always amazed at the new sounds they can make. (It makes me happy too!)

A newly strengthened voice can explore very easy songs, or short sections of beloved songs that have formerly been out of reach and out of range. We talk honestly about what's technically possible now and what might happen later on with improving skills. The best part is, we start to think about singing in a whole new way. No more dismissal, no more embarrassment, no more despair. Like every other person on the planet, this person is a singer. This person can sing.

 

 

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! Part 3

Lana Del Rey, cockeyed optimist And so we continue with I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!, where I explain the vocal sins committed by the singers you can't stand to hear.

One of my eight blog readers begged, "Do Lana Del Rey. Please." Okay. All I knew of Del Rey was the media coverage of her lackluster appearance on Saturday Night Live several years ago. So I watched a bunch of her videos on YouTube. Her videos are mini-epics that are superior to her pedestrian voice, which reminds me of Mama Cass in range but not in musicality. I wonder if Del Rey is popular because she is one of the few girl singers who's not belting and autotuning to the high heavens. In that way, she is a welcome relief. Every morose maiden can sing Del Rey with little to no effort, for that's how she sings too -- undersupported and under energized. I'd bet money that she told her first voice teacher she was "really more of an alto." Her range is low, small, and finite, which means every song sounds the same. While her tone is clear, her lack of vocal hustle results in some chronic nasality. Lana Del Rey sounds like she needs cheering up.

Kim Carnes: A voice as pure as New York snow.

"Bette Davis Eyes" is unsingable unless you are recovering from laryngitis, which is what Kim Carnes sounded like on her best day (But oh, she could whip that hair!). That gravely, wooly sound is her vocal folds coming together unevenly. It must be an injury from a long time ago. It seems to be happening throughout her range -- I don't hear a clear sound anywhere, except in a few brief head voice moments. She struggles to sing many interval leaps -- but in this song, I think it's less of a vocal problem than a conscious choice. Carnes' disabled voice got her a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1981. Call me contrary, but Carnes' quirky, weathered voice suited lyrics that celebrated a one-of-a-kind actress. Gwyneth Paltrow sang the song in a movie once -- her rendition is clear and controlled, her pitch is accurate . .. and it's totally unmemorable. Carnes has been married to the same guy since 1967 and she's still writing songs in Nashville, isn't that great? Terrible singer, but hopefully a happy songwriter.

Rod Stewart: Do Ya Think I'm Scratchy?

Carnes is often compared to Rod Stewart, the uncrowned King Of Raspy Singers. To me, Joe Cocker sounds like a hot mess, but Rod Stewart sounds far hotter. It's his material, of course -- the vocal range of his songs is higher, the tempo of many songs is faster. Stewart readily admits his voice is fragile, and when I listen to him I mostly hear the damage. I can listen to his early stuff but not his newer recordings. I like reading about Stewart, far more than listening to him. Stewart is a thyroid cancer survivor, which is of course wonderful -- but he has also admitted to taking loads of manhood-shrinking steroids to soothe his swollen throat after abusing it in performance. Don't let it happen to you, kids! Cher really is more of an alto. That's fine, but she also drawls her vowels, which leads her to sing with a very swallowed sound. You either love her or . . .you don't. Compare Cher to Tina Turner in this clip from Cher's solo variety show (after she divorced Sonny). They sing the same notes, but the sound is totally different. That's not just because they're two different singers, it's also because there are two different approaches to singing a particular phrase. Tina keeps her voice in a more "forward" sounding position and nasalizes words, while Cher goes straight back. If I could turn back time, I'd never hear her version if "It's In His Kiss." Ever.

Proud Mary with Half Breed

Who should we talk about next? Jewel? Stevie Nicks? Shakira? Cat Stevens? Contact me with your nominations and I'll commence this Very Important Research.

 

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! (Part Deux)

It's time for another round of "I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!", where I explain the bad vocal technique behind the songs I've never liked -- and even some songs I do like. This week, I'm including some nominations from you, my Eight Blog Readers!

1. Benny Mardones, Into The Night: It was one of the few songs to hit the Top 20 twice in the same decade -- 1980 and 1989. I liked the beginning of the song, but Mardones' highest pitches were produced with scratchy strained vocal folds, and that really turned me off. It sounded like screaming then, and it still does today. It's unfortunate, because when he sings "If I could fly, I'd pick you up," he has a lovely head voice "oo" sound on the word you. Only a few notes later, he sings "and you a love" on the same pitch (B flat), and the vowel is gravelly and the throat is tight. Head voice would have sounded better. I couldn't imagine any girl accepting an "Into The Night" serenade; maybe that's why I didn't date much in high school. (Watch the video, made a year before MTV started! It has an Aladdin concept and everything!)

Stay on pitch, Natalie!
Stay on pitch, Natalie!

2. When she was with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant's voice moved unevenly between her chest register and mixed chest and head register. In "Like The Weather" you can hear how some notes sound very swallowed and dark while slightly higher pitches are bright and pinched. But it was her pitchiness that drove me nuts. Merchant always allowed a pitch drop-off at the ends of phrases, partly for effect and partly because she ran out of breath. Also, what are the words in "Like The Weather?" I still have no idea. This kind of lazy, louche singing happened a lot in the grungy '90s. (I like Wonder. I can understand the words and she commits far fewer vocal sins.) (And I love her gray hair now.)

3. Aaron Neville was nominated by one of my readers. Good call! In order to extract a tenor range Neville has to engage in some vocal fracking, extracting a sound through a tense chest, neck and jaw. The tension is so great, his head and chin jerk with the effort of moving from note to note. Watch the clip with the sound turned off to see for yourself. Neville might not have enough air in his lungs to sing more than a few notes comfortably, so he sings lots of teeny tiny melodic lines instead and grabs a shallow breath between them. When you don't have enough air in your lungs, your throat will squeeze to try to help you finish the phrase your brain started. (Oh, whatever. I still love this song and remember it from the movie The Big Easy! I just can't watch Neville when he sings it!)

You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!
You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!

4. Vocally, Joe Cocker is Aaron Neville to the infinite power, with some laryngitis thrown in. Joe Cocker's voice proves again that a ruin can be charming. His raspy, breathy, gravelly voice is the result of damaged vocal folds not closing together completely and properly. Might be drugs, might be cigarettes, might be illness, might be all of the above. He swears the jerky body swings are not related to his singing or breathing, but how could they not be? Stiffness and rigidity in the limbs and shoulders is going to affect the voice. As with Neville, I think it's a way of trying to force sound out through a very tight throat and damaged folds. Watch what John Belushi had to do to imitate him, back when Saturday Night Live was funny. Have you ever tried to imitate Joe Cocker? It's exhausting. But millions of people are still happy to watch Joe Cocker be Joe Cocker. 

Each of these singers has had a great career while committing mortal vocal sins that I would try to remove or ameliorate in a voice lesson -- shows how much I know, right? But young singers routinely come into my studio and imitate singers by imitating their vocal problems  . . and I have to tell them all the reasons why it's not wise to do that. 

If you've ever wondered why a certain singer's voice makes you want to plug your ears, you just might have an appreciation for good vocal technique, and a normal sense of outrage when standards are violated. Yay you!

The ballot box is still open . . nominate your least favorite singers or songs and I'll tell you why your ears are crying.

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Eden's On The Air: "Conducting Conversations" With Mike Maino of WCRI

Don't touch that dial! Eden with Mike Maino of "Conducting Conversations", WCRI

Conducting Conversations has been a beloved radio show for years. Host Mike Maino has talked to Broadway stars, genius conductors, world-class instrumentalists and  . . . me. I'm the first voice teacher to be on Conducting Conversations! The program airs on WCRI 95.9 FM in the Rhode Island area on Sunday, October 12 from 7 to 8pm. It's available on podcast afterwards at www.classical959.com.

UPDATE: CLICK TO LISTEN!

Mike was a genial, generous host. I brought a mixed bag of music to share and he enjoyed the variety -- he asked if he could keep the CD I burned for the show, so he could listen to all the tracks again! I started with my own performance from last April, to prove my bona fides. We talked about how I accidentally discovered that I was a coloratura, and then we played some Beverly Sills and Natalie Dessay, who are far more bona fide than I.

When Mike and I talked about teaching voice lessons to children, I presented two contrasting versions of O Mio Babbino Caro, one by Maria Callas and one by Jackie Evancho. Many of my younger students imitate Jackie, who is imitating Charlotte Church, who was imitating Kiri Te Kanawa. No one imitates Callas. (Is such a thing possible?)

Mike and I talked about opera stars singing pop, and pop style in opera. As a voice teacher, I have to help singers figure out what is appropriate and healthy for them vocally and stylistically, and what's better left unsung. I brought two examples for fun: Placido Domingo singing the Beatles and "Catch Our Act At The Met," a great show tune by Comden and Green. Note that Comden and Green do not actually try to sing opera, and that's why the song works. I almost brought Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe . . .oh well, next time!

Thanks Mike, for a great hour of conversation and shop talk! I love helping singers find their real voices. Singers can stretch themselves to stylistic limits and imitate other singers as they try to find their own sound, but every singer sounds wonderful when they are true to themselves.

(Sign up for all my emails, over there on the right hand side of this blog. Want a voice lesson? Click on the "Book Now" button at the top of the blog and choose a time!)

I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!

Michael W. Smith can't sing without hurting someone Back in the 1980s I listened to pop music just as much as any other teen. My favorite singers included Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer. I also developed a blacklist of songs and singers that just sounded wrong to me. Back then, I probably dismissed the offender with a casual, "Eew! I just hate that song!" and turned the dial. Now I can see that my teen ears were often just reacting to some very bad vocal technique. Here, a few of the few songs I couldn't stand when they first came out, and the vocal reasons why. The awful videos are just a bonus!

Place In This World: Michael W. Smith was a very popular Christian artist in the 1980s and 1990s and this was a crossover hit for him. Listen to that raspiness, especially on the choruses. This sound is the vocal equivalent of a three-day beard -- it could be totally on purpose, or just a lack of (vocal) hygiene. He pronounces place as "pleece" because if he sang "place" he'd never hit the pitch. Try and do it yourself. Once.

Madonna has Lived To Tell

Live To Tell, Madonna: Her first hit, "Borderline," featured a very bright, nasal voice and a light timbre -- so light, I could sing it easily and often did, and I really liked her for that reason. That, and the neon heels with socks. In this song, the melody is about an octave lower and Madonna is singing with a very dark, covered, almost swallowed sound. She's also trying to carry her chest voice higher and is straining to do so. At the slumber party we could all sing "Borderline" with a brush for a microphone, but no one wanted to sing "Live To Tell." I heard her sing it live on a concert video few years back, and she has improved. Keep up the lessons, Madonna, you may get somewhere!

Keep On Loving You, REO Speedwagon: I've hated this song "fereverrr." Every choir teacher on earth begs their singers to drop the final 'r's in words, because if you sing an 'r,' it sounds like nerdy and immature and sort of like .  . . . Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.

Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle: Vibrato tighter than her jeans. (But very cool eyeliner.) A too-fast vibrato can be an indication of vocal tension, or inadequate breath support. Carlisle's veers very close to tremolo, which sounds almost like a vocal tremble. At least it does to my ears. She sang that way when she fronted the Go-Gos too, but she sang in a higher range then. As a solo artist, she sang in lower keys and the fast vibrato was more noticeable to me.

Oh, there are more. And you have your own vocal transgressors to accuse. Tell me what you hate, and I'll tell you . . why.

 

Warmups for Choirs

Let's make this go viral, but not Ebola viral My latest contribution to cyberspace: A video of warmups for the singers of The Chorus Of Westerly. Director Andrew Howell asked me to record some warmups that singers could do every day at home (I'm the vocal coach for the Chorus). I suggested that a picture is worth a thousand arpeggios.

We tried to include a cross-section of exercises to suit the needs of the majority of our singers, who range in age from 8 to 80. So we stretched, we yawned, we made whale sounds, we wailed sirens, and we did some breathing exercises. You can do 'em too! Go ahead! Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 11.00.07 AM

At the Chorus, I've been able to hear about 20 or 30 of the individual singers over the past couple of years. Some have come for voice lessons or for voice class, or I've just been sitting near them in rehearsal. But most of the voices are known to me only as part of a group. I still have to figure out how to help them sing better. One-on-one vocal instruction can lead to rapid results because you can zone in on individual quirks and abilities. How do you improve the vocal technique of multiple singers at the same time? A choir director can demonstrate and then ask for an "oo" vowel, but every singer will take that direction a little differently. One chorister will sing "oo" with little change in the vocal tract, while the one right next door might sing an "oo" that sounds like an "oh," with some  "uh," and "eeew" in there too. Each "oo" will be different because the person, like the voice, is unique, and the producer is too close to the sound to really hear what it sounds like. Each voice carries a lifetime of singing shoulds and shouldn'ts, unbroken bad habits, and (often) some overdone good habits. How do you get one person to brighten their "uh" to an "eeh" to wind up on "ooh" while the person right next to them needs to darken their nasal "eeew" with more "uh"? And then do that with, say, an additional 138 singers?

Yawn if you love the Chorus of Westerly

One of my solutions is asking everyone to make some extreme sounds, to increase flexibility and show a singer what's vocally possible in their own throat. Everyone, make "ee" so bright it needs sunglasses. Spread your lips, grin like a Cheshire Cat, and say "ee." Okay, that's bright! Feel the position of your tongue when you make that "ee." Now, make a dark, woofy "ugh" in the very back of the throat, like a monster on Halloween. Notice the difference. I mug, I grimace, I make very weird sounds and cheer every singer who's brave enough to do it with me. Most find it very freeing and fun. You're watching this on your computer? TRY IT! 

Every singer should safely explore the limits of their instrument, individually or in a group. We get used to singing vowels in certain ways, we get used to hearing ourselves sing the same way, and we begin to lose flexibility. Sirens and wails and extreme sounds can help any singer find new colors and new vocal possibilities. Singers might also rethink where their voice is, in relation to those extremes. And they might be a little more willing to make small changes or adjustments. 

Want me to come do whale sounds with your choir? Just ask! 

 

 

Boo-Boo Kitty, 2005-

Boo-Boo, where are you? What to do if your cat goes missing, as Boo-Boo Kitty did on June 25.

TO DO: 1. Go ahead, panic. WHERE IS HE?? WHAT HAPPENED? Boo-Boo Kitty was a homebody who came and went as he pleased, never traveling more than a quarter mile from the house. Oen afternoon he just took off like shot, like he was heading toward something. He never came back. That's not like him at all.

2. It easily could have been you who let the cat go out, and you've already forgiven him, but be a little angry at the guilty-looking husband who was so busy working that he didn't realize Boo-Boo had been missing for over 24 hours. He just assumed that he came inside at night and went to sleep. You drove 15 hours (it should have taken 12) from Columbus Ohio, walked in the door, and immediately realized the cat was missing. Start searching and calling together in the dark, to no avail. (Husband keeps up the search even when you are thousands of miles away in Europe. He's a keeper.)

3. Scour missing pet websites, including www.missingpetpartnership.org. List your pet as "missing" with RI Lost Pets, Craigslist, and other online groups. Bring posters to the local shelters and veterinarian offices. Try not to notice how many other pets are missing, too.

4. Don't shake your fist at karma too hard when you think of how you spent a vacation's worth of savings on your cat's teeth only two weeks prior to his disappearance. You rationalized, "Hey, he's only nine years old, he's going to be around for another ten years at least, let's make him comfortable." Be glad that even though he has far fewer teeth Out There On His Own, at least you know he has his shots, and he always did like to gum the grass.

IMG_89755. Make eye-catching signs for the neighborhood telephone poles. Cut sheets of neon poster board in half to double your supply. Include basic information only: "LOST CAT, GREY/WHITE TABBY, CALL ME." Use plastic sheet protectors to keep your color photo looking nice for weeks on end, even though you devoutly hope the posters will be coming down in a few days, when you find him. Be sad but glad, weeks later, that the posters are still up and still looking good. Glad but sad.

6. Hang the posters at major intersections in your community, and be amazed and relieved that no one rips them down. Instead, all the walkers and joggers and bikers stop, read, and they start calling. It's high summer and there are many, many people around to help look. Feel hopeful.

7. Hand out little flyers to all neighbors in a half mile radius. ALL of them. Accept their sympathy while trying to get access to their garages, sheds and backyards so you can conduct a thorough search. Keep flyers in a Ziploc bag with a pen, so you can add a personal message like "Spotted near your driveway on 7/14, please keep a look out."

8. Talk to the lady down the street who feeds ferals. Five of her seven ferals went missing about a month ago. She saw the coyote take one of them in his mouth. Also discover there is a chicken coop not too far away from your house and the coyote likes to park there and shop for dinner. Be sobered by this information, but also realize that there are several other cats who walk about the neighborhood completely unmolested. It's luck, it's chance, and it's also geography.

9. Make your sleepless nights productive. When you awaken at 3am worried about your cat, put on your shoes and go out with a flashlight and softly call him. Hope that your neighbors are sleeping soundly. Flash the light into closed garage windows and sheds, hoping but also not hoping to find him or hear him trapped there after three weeks of being missing. Cats can survive that long but you hate to think of the suffering.

Crazy Cat Lady In the Vintage Bathing Suit At The Independence Day Parade

10. Leave your family's holiday early because you are heartbroken and anxious about your missing cat. You got a possible lead the moment you arrived at their home, six hours away from yours. Go home and keep searching after the lead turns out to be false. At the Independence Day Parade in your neighborhood, hand out more Lost Cat flyers while wearing a vintage bathing suit because this year's theme is "Living History." Own the title of Crazy Cat Lady.

11. Begin a desperate search for ways to keep your two remaining cats safe. Invest in an indiegogo scheme that will build GPS pet collars trackable on an iPhone. Get your Invisible Fence fixed but balk at training Cecilia the Huntress Cat to stay inside it. Instead, buy the Loc8or, a kind of LoJack for cats, and put the little radio units on your cats' collars. Be happily amazed at how well they work. Teach everyone in the family how to locate Lou-Lou and Cecilia with the little monitor, that beeps faster and louder when you get closer to the cat or the cat gets closer to you. Play this game of feline Marco Polo every night at dusk. It now takes you five minutes to locate Cecilia in the back yard, or one street beyond. If it took any longer you would be immediately alerted to trouble. And now you know Cecilia gets around so much she should have a passport.

12. Hire Marge the Missing Pet Detective to bring her dogs to your yard, to see if they can pick up a cat scent. Try not to be too elated to have the help and support, and try not to be too discouraged when they don't lead you straight to your pet after three outings. The process itself is very interesting, even if you don't get the result you want.

13. Deploy wildlife trail cameras (on loan from Marge the awesome pet detective) in your yard. Put out a Kitty Buffet of smelly mackerel, cat food, and dry dog food to attract diners to the camera. Do this so many times, you can do it by feel and not even need a flashlight. In the morning, see that the plates are empty. Bring your laptop and check the SD card from the camera. See raccoons, possums, birds eating your food . . .and a few cats you've never seen before. But not Boo-Boo.  MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA MOULTRIE DIGITAL GAME CAMERA

14. After several weeks of not seeing any cats in your own yard, convince neighbors and vacant home caretakers to let you put trail cameras in their backyards. Check them daily. When you get no hits after a few days, find new neighbors to beg.

15. Leave used kitty litter at the lawn's edge; they'll smell their way back.

16. Put a can of tuna in a crock pot with water. Heat it up. Load it into a spray bottle and spray it on trees and shrubs near your home, hoping the smell will lure your cat home. (This even impressed Marge.)

17. When you find cats on camera, prepare humane traps and hope to catch them -- maybe catch your own. Trap two giant ferals within 12 hours . .but release them when you realize it's a Saturday night and you have nowhere to send them to be neutered. Damn, damn, damn.

Pharrell the Big Mean Feral. He looked . .Happy . . when I released him.

18. Follow up every lead. Try not to be too elated when a caller insists they saw your cat. Text them a photo of your cat to confirm. Try not to be too agitated when they don't call back right away, and then you have to call them after waiting an hour to find out that, "no, I guess it wasn't him, so I didn't call you." They weren't even going to bother calling back; that's the part that hurts. Don't they know you are sitting on tenterhooks waiting for their response, while they think they're making it easier on you by just ignoring you? What do they think you are doing, thinking about something else? Learn to send out more than one photo -- send out three photos, like a kitty lineup, and see which one they choose. It makes it a little more likely they'll call back.

19. Start a Facebook page called "Cats Of Quonnie" to keep track of all cat sightings, and to keep people looking. Upload videos from your trail cameras, which are really kind of entertaining. Give the feral cats cool names like Kanye, Pharrell, Greystoke, and Christian Grey (he had many different shades of, well, you know). Upload photos of every cat you can find in your neighborhood, so when people call and swear they found your cat, you can direct them to the Facebook page where they will either exclaim, 1. "I really did see your cat" or 2. "Oh, I guess it was that one who lives down the street, sorry." Two other local cats are now missing. Add them to your page.

20. Practice your calm demeanor when someone casually mentions, "You know, my neighbor found some kind of small animal intestines on her front lawn a month ago, that same place where we thought we saw your cat. But she didn't call you about it because she didn't want to upset you." You're not upset about a dead animal's intestines; you're upset because you're thinking this ordeal could have been over a month ago if someone had bothered to pick up the phone. Your phone number is all over the telephone poles in the neighborhood. Swear to yourself that you will never do that to anyone else, out of fear of upsetting them.

21. Go to that house and check out the property anyway. Find no evidence of fur or anything that would suggest a coyote kill. There are coyotes and fisher cats in the area, but there are also many places to hide, and you've had potential sightings (even though nothing has panned out). Be aware that lack of despair is not the same as hope.

22. Feel tremendous sympathy when your neighbor's cat suddenly goes missing four weeks after yours. Share your advice, your kitty buffet, and your cameras.

23. Let your heart race four days later, when you get a solemn call from a friend two blocks away. She has found part of a cat in her backyard. The landscape crew was mowing her lawn and blowing away the freshly cut grass when they noticed fur in the air. They remembered your signs and they told the homeowner. Shake as you drive to her house. Follow the bits of grey fur -- a sure sign of a coyote kill -- until you come upon the remains of a cat -- a tail and a leg, nothing else. Scrutinize it carefully and realize it's not your cat. Gently take the remains to your neighbor's house, and hug her as she identifies them as her missing cat. Be sad for both of you. Her ordeal is over; yours isn't.

24. Acknowledge that Boo-Boo could have met the same fate. Keep looking for evidence of death, as well as life.

25. As weeks turn into months, and the sightings are further apart and each trail goes cold, begin to face it as much as you dare. You worked so hard, you did everything you could. Your neighbors are amazed and slightly appalled at your tenacity. You attracted every cat in the area, except him. The sightings could have been him, or could have been Greystoke, a feral cat who had some similar markings. Boo-Boo could be eating plates of wet food and purring into the neck of someone only a few miles away, or he could have died the night he went missing. You will probably never know for certain, but more than likely it's the latter. You never had control over any of this. If he returns home, it will be a miracle that will be shared on the missing pet blogs for years. But you don't expect a miracle anymore.

26. Return the traps and the cameras to Marge the pet detective. Start to take down the signs in the neighborhood. It's very hard to do this so you do one at a time, every few days. Keep one trail camera for yourself, just in case, and because it is still kind of interesting to see the wildlife in your own yard.  You hear that some vacationers adopt a cat for the season, then take off in the fall, leaving the cat to fend for itself (horrible). Maybe you can catch these homeless cats on the camera and start a feeding station. Maybe Boo-Boo strayed that far and he'll show up there. Maybe you can still salvage this experience.

I miss our not talking together.

27. Be always grateful you were never conducting a desperate search for your missing child.

28.  Be satisfied that you were able to dispel many misconceptions about missing pets; it might help the next grieving owner. So much of the folk wisdom is dead wrong and it reduces the chances of cats coming home. FACTS: Even confident cats can become scared when they are out of territory, even just a few feet. . . . Even friendly, social cats can appear feral when they're trapped, which can lead to them being euthanized in a shelter instead of being reunited with an owner. . . . Lost cats will not come when called, at all; they shut down into survival mode even if their beloved owner is three feet away with food in hand and calling for hours. It can take a week or longer for these cats to break cover and move. . . Cats who show no signs of ill health or age do not just go off into the woods, "fixin' to die". . . .Cats do not just decide they want to live somewhere else and take off like hobos; they will warn you first by detaching, and by disappearing for a short time. And all of this applies to dogs, too. They are creatures of habit.

Boo-Boo in his usual spot. I miss hearing him.

28. Cats who are one Pounce short of a can, cats who started life rough in the barn and were grateful to live in a warm house, cats who were declawed as kittens and didn't have great hunting skills, cats who sleep all day behind your back, cats who are first in line for the crunches, cats who look for chances to purr into your neck -- they do not just run away. They are missing, they are lost, they are gone. You can do a lot of things to help bring them home. One of them may work. All of them may work. Or not.

29. You have used your hard-won knowledge to help others. It just couldn't help Boo-Boo. Be sad about that for as long as you need to be.

30. Admit that the girl cats are not exactly crying into their Meow Mix about Boo-Boo's absence. They get more food when they want it, the litter box is a lot cleaner, and both of them have become more social with the rest of the family. Boo-Boo hogged the spotlight, like Rebel before him. But you miss that wonderful, quirky male feline adulation. You are already cruising the PetFinder website, looking to save a cat from a shelter. You just want to save something. 

IMG_2342 IMG_3914 IMG_3004

31. Oh, how you wanted to end this post with a little update saying Boo-Boo had been found and was purring contentedly behind your back as you were writing. Maybe that's why you didn't blog for three months. You were hoping to write a happy ending. Good night dear Boo-Boo, and sleep well, wherever you are . . .

 

 

 

My Sunken Chest

All of my voice students spend part of each lesson warming up the head voice register and the chest voice register. I learned this as part of my Somatic VoiceWork training. It's not optional, it's mandatory. A strong, flexible voice includes a healthy head voice (think of angelic high "ooh" sounds) and a healthy chest voice (think of Santa saying a deep "Ho Ho Ho."). Relying on one register while disregarding the other is a recipe for frustration. I know, because for the first decades of my life, that's exactly what I did. I took traditional classical voice lessons from the age of 13, and I developed a great stratospheric head voice -- my natural range and easy for me to use. But, whenever the melody descended towards middle C, it got difficult for me. I noticed it when I sang solos and when I sang in my school choir. I just couldn’t figure out how to move from head voice to chest, let alone how to get back up. I carried my head voice down too far, and ended up with a tiny breathy low sound at the bottom of the staff. No one talked about it with me when they heard it, and I didn't know enough to ask.

I was taking voice lessons with Professor Hickfang, who was a great classical teacher. But I didn’t have a clue about registers, what they were for, or how anyone actually sang anything. If any teacher gave me advice about it, I forgot it instantly. I just knew I was great at high notes and lousy at singing in chest voice and I could never unite the two. When it was a matter of musical life or death and I had to be heard, I would shout and squeeze out the lowest notes in my chest voice. It didn't feel good, and it was more difficult for me to reclaim my head voice afterwards. Like anyone else with one overdeveloped range and one underdeveloped range, I had a noticeable break. I knew my chest voice and head voice were as different as Jekyll and Hyde, and it embarrassed me. So, I gravitated to songs that showcased my high range. I embraced opera and 1940s and 1950s girl singer repertoire. George Gershwin's "Summertime" -- in the original key -- was my jam! I loved Eydie Gorme and Peggy Lee, crooners who exhaled into the microphone, did not push or strain in chest register, and rarely ascended to head voice. The chanteuse Sade had a breathy dominant chest register, a big break, and an even weaker head voice. Ironically, that made it easier for me to imitate her so I became a big Sade fan.

UnknownIn the absence of any instruction to the contrary, I convinced myself that I couldn't sing notes below a certain pitch. I might as well have admitted that I couldn’t turn left. 

I spent a frustrating year in Shillelagh, my high school's show choir. I had auditioned as a singer, but my break and breathy low range was obvious. Then I made the mistake of showing our teacher Mr. Reardon that I could play keyboards, so naturally I became the keyboard player. I watched the backs of all the beautiful girls as they sashayed through each show, doing jazz squares in sparkly red leotards and black wrap skirts. Meanwhile, I was hidden behind the Yamaha DX-7, playing the accompaniment to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and "We Got The Power," keeping my mouth shut. I loved trying out new sounds on the keyboard and jamming with the rest of my bandmates, and I loved getting out of class to play for the Christmas parties of local businesses. But I wished I could sing with them, and sing like them.

Mr. Reardon was a fan of vocal jazz, so Shillelagh performed a lot of songs originally recorded by The Manhattan Transfer. All the performing girls were invited to audition for a short alto solo in "Birdland". I begged to be allowed to try out, too, and after a lot of pleading, Mr. Reardon relented. I memorized Janis Siegel’s rendition, all expertly mixed head and chest. I thought I had done an okay job of blending the break between my registers, and making some chest sounds when required. I sang the solo, hands shaking with nerves, and I looked and sounded just like a 15 year old opera singer with an undeveloped chest voice. And so I played the keyboards for "Birdland".

Finally, I got to perform a solo on one of Shillelagh's final concerts of the year. I loved a torch song by Julie London (another breathy chesty singer), called Cry Me A River. But there was no way I could sing those low notes, even with a lot of breathiness and a microphone. So I rearranged the song to make it easy for another pianist to play, and transposed it six keys higher. (SIX keys higher??? *Smacks forehead*)

I took music theory the following year, sang Soprano 1 in choir, and someone else played the DX-7. I played Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (an alto role!) who never really sang high notes and didn't have to sing beautifully in her lower range, either. I just emitted some chest voice sounds and left it at that. It could have been a golden opportunity for me to start learning how to balance my registers. Instead, I learned how to square dance.

It took me another twenty years to finally learn how to strengthen my chest voice so I could blend my registers and make all kinds of mixes, including a belt sound. Right after I learned to belt, I got an unexpected promotion from keyboard player to solo performer . . . more later.

Organic

Manual(s) . . . not automatic. I'm feeling the need to stretch myself, musically. Rapping is out, so I'm learning how to play the organ. I already play and can credibly "fake" my way through a service, but I want to be better than that. I'm serving as an itinerant sub in a few churches and want to serve more, so I've decided it's time to make organ study a priority. Five months in, I guess this is one of my resolutions for the year!

This is my first textbook: Flor Peeters' Little Organ Book. In addition to being a great resource, it contained a wonderful surprise. For years I heard a certain Bach piece played by different organists. I would hear it and think, "That sounds like something I could actually play." But I was never able to locate the sheet music. I finally found it in Flor Peeters -- the final piece in the book!  Makes sense.

Eine Kleine Orgelbuch

If you want to donate a minute of your life you can never get back, here is me stumbling through part of that Bach prelude at the back of the Peeters book, for the very fourth time. I was wearing my seldom-used dance shoes (leather soles are better for pedals than rubber soles) but I know I'm going to need actual organ shoes to improve my pedal technique. I'm attracted to the silver ones but worry that silver might be a little too Diane Bish.

I wanted to start organ study with a mountaintop experience, so I had my very first organ lesson - ever -- with George Kent, the living legend who happens to be the organist at Christ Church in Westerly. He escorted me up to the choir loft and gave me a tour of the church's legendary C.B. Fisk organ, completed in 1965. I didn't get a picture in the loft because I wasn't there as a tourist and a selfie might have broken the spell. In the easy way that masters impart knowledge, Mr. Kent explained the stops and their functions ("This is the sasparilla stop . . .just kidding, it's sesquialtera. . "), and gave me permission to find it all a little overwhelming ("Even Biggsy had trouble pronouncing gemshorn correctly!"). The lesson confirmed that in a few small ways, I know more than I think I do. The rest is learnable.

Ronald Casteel worked his way through college playing organ at Seafood Bay and Maple Grove United Methodist Church.

My dad played organ in church at age 11, and he played organ in bars only a couple of years after that (ah, the '50s).  I'm clinging to the hope that in my DNA, I'm more prone to be a good organist than a lousy one. I've got many organist friends in low (and high) places, and with their willingness to talk shop and my willingness to beg for help, I'm bound to improve.

Playing beautiful organ music on a grand instrument is worth any mortification. Will I mess up the postlude? Not just possibly; I will mess up the postlude! What's exciting to think about how I mess up the prelude -- in the pedals, in the stops, or in the manuals? Probably all three! I can't wait!

 

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The "Babbino" Bunch

The small and lovely Salt Marsh Opera will present Puccini's comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi on May 16 at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, CT. You should go see it! The gorgeous aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" was written for this work, which premiered in 1918. You can buy the aria at G. Schirmer. You don't even have to show ID.

You've heard that song, right? Such a beautiful, simple yet elegant melody. Lush, emotional strings support the singer throughout. It's easy to dress it up with a few tasteful portamenti, and a fermata here and there. It's been used in commercials and in the opening credits of the movie of E.M. Forster's A Room With A View. My favorite version is by Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice is rich and round, just perfect for this aria. Feel free to disagree, my eight blog readers. But I'm right. Anna Netrebko's pretty great, too. Kathleen Battle's voice is smaller (like mine) and her mouth does weird stuff (a source of much discussion among voice teachers), but it's a heartfelt, artistic statement.

The English translation is "Oh, My Beloved Daddy." Gianni Schicchi's daughter Lauretta is begging her father to let her marry Mr. Right. "O Mio Babbino Caro" was the second aria my voice teacher Prof. Hickfang ever gave me, and I loved it instantly. What soprano wouldn't? All those octave leaps from A flat to A flat, all those delicious long notes practically sighing off the page, all those threats of suicide if Daddy won't let her get married! I think my teacher assigned me the aria so I could work on my Italian diction, and get an introduction to grand opera style. The A flats were easy for me to sing. Of course my baby diva voice didn't have the fullness or richness of an actual Lauretta onstage. I sighed with despair when I heard Te Kanawa's version, figuring I'd never sound even half as good or half as loud. I never actually performed it or used it for an audition in high school or college; I was no Lauretta and it was just a study aria for me. (The first aria Prof. Hickfang assigned me was "The Black Swan" from Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium, an aria I never really liked from an opera I never really understood. Feel free to agree.)

Through the glories of YouTube I found a "Babbino" by Maria Callas, using an amazing amount of chest voice, as she was wont to do. La Divina can get away with it. If the desperate maiden is pushing 50, chest voice is appropriate and adds a certain note of verismo.

Jackie Evancho: Your curfew is 8pm, 7pm Central.

It's trickier if the maiden is 9. "O Mio Babbino Caro" is now a staple for the Infant Diva who wants to audition for talent shows, but can't belt. (Dear Lord, it's like all talent shows are down to two acts: "Let It Go" and "O Mio Babbino Caro"!) The attractions of the aria remain the same: High notes, easy Italian, quick song. But most of the baby divas I've heard sing it on YouTube try to imitate Te Kanawa and other adult women in all the wrong ways -- they add chest voice to be able to hit the low notes, bunch up their tongues in the backs of their mouths, move their bent arms stiffly like mannequins, and add wobbly vibrato to try to sound more grown up. Some hear "The Voice Of An Angel" who is blooming early like an azalea; I hear a singer whose career will be over before she can drive.

Vocalists who have learned to sing without constriction and distortion will eclipse them. The only exception to this rule is Sarah Brightman, who commits all these vocal crimes and still seems to be able to put food on the table. I can't explain Sarah. I can't explain why the dinosaurs died, either, but as with Sarah's approach to Puccini, it was tragic.

I believe this is the fate that awaits Jackie Evancho, who sang the song she called 'O Mio Poppino Caro' on TV as a fourth grader. It might come even more swiftly for Amira Willinghagen, Holland's strangle-throated answer to Jackie, who was America's answer to Charlotte Church, who was England's answer to Deanna Durbin, who was singing the heroic tenor aria "Nessun Dorma" in English at age 22, on film. At least Deanna sang the hell out of it, and was wearing something larger than a training bra. She also had the good sense to retire in her mid-20s and live on as a legend until her death last year.

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

I've actually coached a nine year old who chose "O Mio Babbino Caro" for -- of course -- a talent show. Like Jackie, she had no idea where the song came from, who was actually singing it in the opera, or how old that character was. She had heard lots of versions of the aria on YouTube and was imitating Jackie's bad traits, and internalizing them. So, I did some reprogramming. I insisted on natural vibrato only, and only very light chest voice on the lowest notes. I kept encouraging a light, age-appropriate head voice and an unaffected presentation. She won second place.

I'm looking forward to Salt Marsh Opera's production, and enjoying the aria in context. I admit, there's something about Puccini that brings out the opera singer in everyone, and sometimes they just can't be stopped. Here, the maiden looks a lot like Chris Tucker and sings a perfectly fine amateur countertenor.

Oh gosh, that was funny. I loved the predictably fatuous pronouncements by the judges. I loved the ending. I loved that it was over.

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven, Vol. 11: Sweet Abstinence

1. I'm in dietary limbo, following a bout of gastric distress. After a nasty night of "hurl up and die" and a full day in bed where I could barely lift my head, I'm dressed and bleaching everything in sight today. I know I should try to eat something but I have almost no appetite, and don't even want to hear anyone talk about food. I'm dehydrated and pale, but I look fabulous in my jeans! As Emily Blunt said in The Devil Wears Prada: ea7f7f00ce20155589e161dbc45782b6

2. I gave up sugar and alcohol for Lent, but I have to confess I have not been perfect in my fasting. I broke the alcohol fast when I was helping my parents pack up their house in Ohio. Was I going to turn down a little Jack Daniel's toast with my parents in their wonderful new condo? No, I was not. I only broke the sugar fast because The Best Photographer In The World brought home an Allie's Donut. The road to Hell is paved with Allie's Donuts. Why not blame my husband, the way Adam blamed Eve? After I ate that donut (glazed), I noticed that it seemed sickeningly sweet. I had to eat the whole thing to prove to myself that it wasn't that enjoyable.

3. So, it was probably the combination of leftover pizza, a glass of wine, and a hot chocolate with whipped cream that did me in on Sunday night *. My stomach was just overwhelmed. And now store-made hot chocolate is on the list of Foods I Will Never Eat Again, right next to White Russians (21st birthday at the blues bar in Cincinnati. Disgusting).

4. Have you heard about the lady whose family gave up sugar for a year? That sounds really, really appealing right now.

5. I've actually never been gaga for sweet stuff. I can take it or leave it. I'm a salt girl. Movies exist so I can eat popcorn with salt. I love salt n' pepper potato chips. Smoked almonds are my crack. Where is the book about giving up salt for a year? No, I ain't gonna write it. And besides, we need some salt to survive, don't we? My own mother is on a high-sodium diet to raise her blood pressure. See? Craving salt is probably in my DNA.

6. I've also been half-successful on my third Lenten fast: No laptop in bed. Yeah, I sought out some comfort on Hulu yesterday, and I found it. I watched about ten episodes of Lark Rise To Candleford. I've had a few other days where I broke the fast to buy an airplane ticket, to reply to an important email. But it's clear to me that when I end the day with a book in bed, I'm happier. So, when Lent concludes with the Glorious Solemnity Of Easter, I'm going to try very hard to maintain . . .  and abstain.

7. Right now my bedtime reading is violinist/Holocaust survivor/restaurateur George Lang's autobiography, Nobody Knows The Truffles I've Seen. I bought it for the title. It's a delightful memoir filled with reminiscences and recipes. I can't wait to have the stomach to read it again.

*For the non fish eaters: Catholics can choose to maintain the Lenten Fast for 40 days, or pause each Sunday. I obviously chose to pause. Might rethink that one. 

Diva, ready

I perform with the Ariosti Ensemble at 4pm, but I start preparations long before then. First, the all-important Morning Of Relaxation, accomplished by lying in bed with cats, coffee and laptop. Boo-Boo Kitty, can't you see I'm preparing? I can't think of anything remotely important on a performance day.

I can't (won't) do anything particularly taxing on a performance day. No major chores or work unless it's unavoidable. I take it very easy. I hum some scales in the shower and glance at my music. Then, after dropping off my son at his own high school musical performance (I already saw it), I return home to get "Diva Ready." At 1pm, I eat some leftover steak and vegetables from last night's meal, prepared by The Best Photographer In the World. Beverly Sills always ate a steak, salad, and baked potato before her performances, so from age 16 that's what I've done, too. This balance of protein and carbs works for me. What's great is that under this system I can justify a burger and fries . . and oh, I have.

Time to work on the hair. My hair naturally falls forward onto my face and creates a shadow, so I have to counter it when I perform, or no one would be able to see my face. For performances, my mom would always pull back the hair from the sides of my head. She'd push the crown forward into a little pouf and leave the back long, and then pin it all into place. Sometimes, Mom poufed me so much I looked like the Fourth Beloved Wife of a polygamous Mormon. Now I know what to do. After I tease some height to the crown, I add a couple of bobby pins to hold it in place. Did you know that the wavy edge of the bobby pin is the part that's supposed to go closer to your head, and the straight part is supposed to face out? How did I miss this important life lesson? A couple of shiny clips complete the look, and I spray it into submission.

This is blogger Eden, looking a little like The Bloggess (but with less swearing)

The earrings are a lovely Christmas gift from my mother-in-law, who knew I was always searching for shiny, lightweight "performance" earrings. I also have a pair beautiful Austrian crystal drops that my mom used to wear. I wore them for my headshots and they go with everything. Now I can alternate! I can only wear nickel-free earrings. When I don't, my ears suffer immediately and people give me horrified looks ("Albert! Does that singer know her ears are bright red and bleeding?").

The Arsenal

Cosmetics. Every time I get ready for a performance, I kick myself for not getting someone to teach me how to put on stage makeup. I have never really learned; maybe that should go on my New Year's Resolutions for 2015. I use Cerave moisturizer and Pore Perfect face primer (my skin "eats" makeup, but primer makes me break out so I only put in on for a few hours). I follow that with under eye concealer and foundation, and high-definition blush (with a little darker blush underneath for some contour). I just bought a bunch of elf brand products and I really like them. They are lightweight and so cheap I can try out different colors, and give the rejects to my daughter for her play-makeup box. I use a Revlon eye shadow compact with some matte and slightly sparkly colors. I line my eyes with liquid black pencil that came in my monthly BirchBox, and add waterproof mascara, then I curl my lashes and add some more mascara. I brush powder over my nose. I line my lips with red pencil and fill in with whatever I have lying around. I have yet to find the perfect lipstick shade. It's always too pink or red, but for performance that's exactly what I want -- classic and obvious.

Time to get out of my sweats and into the dress. I tried on most of my black dresses (I own six. Yes, six) earlier in the week to see what would work, and I also checked a few stores to see if there were any last-minute finds. I rejected the funereal wrap dress with white piping at the sleeve and waist, and the slinky one with spaghetti straps. I said no to the beautiful Ann Taylor with beaded bodice and handkerchief hem because it was meant to be worn without a shrug or jacket, and I knew I'd be covering my shoulders. Why on Earth does this deserve such scrutiny? Because I am singing chamber music with an ensemble at 4pm in a church, on a Sunday during Lent. The dress can't be floor length because the other musicians won't be in formal wear. It can't be sleeveless or strapless because everyone else will be in 3/4 or long sleeves, and I prefer to cover my shoulders when I sing in a church. But I do want to look a little snazzy, since I don't have a shiny flute or burnished wood violin in front of me. I have three dressy shrugs/bolero jackets, one which I just got yesterday at a consignment shop. It was size large, but shrugs and bolero jackets for formal wear are hard to find (especially on sale) so I snapped it up. Will it work? Only if I hold it together like this:

Keira Knightley selfie! Mi dispiace, but this is too big unless I yank it together like so. Can't mess with it today.

It's too big; I'll deal with it later. And so I settle on a new combination: A basic black jersey dress (bought last year at Savers in Warwick for $9.99) with a shirred waist, paired with short sleeved black lace bolero with silver sequins scattered all over the front. I've had the bolero for years (it was from some teen store!) but I have never had luck pairing it with a dress until now. It will sparkle in the lights without blinding anyone. The dress is exactly knee length, perfect for an afternoon event. Now, for shoes. I have two pairs of black satin pumps, one slightly higher than the other, which leads to this little dance:

Which one? 1 1/2 inch or 2 inch? (I choose the 2 inch.)

After donning my black earlier in the week, I realized I looked like Death In A Dress so I started applying some self-tanner to my legs and arms, and now I have a nice bit of color. I decided my teeth looked too tan, so I chomped down on some whitening strips as well. I polished my toes earlier in the week. I am a terrible, lazy nail polisher. I lay it on thick, and then let the friction of my shoes rub off the excess over a few days. Since I'm not wearing nylons, I apply a little shimmer lotion to my legs.

Nivea, the shimmer lotion for sopranos of pallor

One more detail: I don my silver "star" bracelet from Sister Renee. She was the principal at my first ever teaching job at St. Michael School in Annandale VA. She always reminded me that God gives us a variety of gifts and talents; she called me her "star" and gave me the bracelet, and I found that very sweet. So I usually wear it when I perform. And, it goes with everything.

The silver "star" bracelet from Sister Renee.

Does this seem like a lot of effort? Well, I put a lot of effort into my singing, so why not make the frame as good as the painting? I rehearse different ways of singing phrases and make sure my score is marked. I try out new ornamentations until I find the ones that work for me and for the song. I listen to my rehearsal recordings and make improvements. I read up on the history of my composers and my repertoire. I write in the translations. Being prepared makes me a more confident performer. So when it comes to getting "Diva Ready" I pay attention to the details, because it's not just about the music, it's about delivering a confident performance. Music hath charms, yes, but seeing is believing.

I appreciate beautifully groomed singers who wear outfits that complement the performance space. I am frustrated by singers who -- no matter how wonderful the voice -- come to the stage with messy hair and distracting clothing that doesn't respect the location or the music. Show me a singer who ignores the visuals and I'll show you Ray Charles. For the rest of us, there's really no excuse.

It's now 2:35 pm and it's time to head to the church. I have already packed my digital recorder with power cord plus three extension cords and duct tape, headphones so I can hear the sound quality before I press "record" at 3:59pm, a fruit and nut bar for quick energy, an empty water bottle to fill at the church, a makeup bag, my music in a black folder, translations of the music to announce to the audience in my best Meryl Streep impression, Static Guard spray in case the skirt begins to cling, and a pair of flat shoes to wear before and after the concert. I also pack a magazine in case I need to clear my brain for a few minutes, but I know I'm not likely to read it. I'm running the music in my head all the time. Just before departing, I open my music and sing through it one time, just to make sure it's all "there." It is. This diva is ready.

Tanned, rested, and ready.

 

Loving the viola

Why do so many people take an instant dislike to the viola? Because it saves time. I kid, I kid! I'm part of a lovely chamber music concert being held Sunday, April 6 at 4pm at Christ Church Episcopal, 7 Elm Street, in Westerly RI. We are the Ariosti Ensemble, named for Attilio Ariosti, a well-regarded Italian composer whose sonatas for viola d'amore (translation: viol of love) are part of the standard Baroque chamber repertoire. Okay, my eight blog readers: What is a viola d'amore, and why should you care? Dr. Joe Ceo with his viola d'amore

If violins are the sopranos of the orchestra, then the violas are altos -- and the viola d'amores are the Red Hat Ladies of the section, proud of their maturity and celebrating their unique experience. Violins play the highest pitches, while violas have a deeper, mellower sound. In addition to its six strings, the viola d'amore has extra "sympathetic" strings that vibrate as the top strings are played by the bow. These extra vibrations give the viola d'amore a distinctively warm, sweet sound.  The "d'amore" indicates the era in which the instrument was developed -- there is also an oboe d'amore. Both instruments date back to the 17th century, and are still used in Baroque ensembles. Violas, and viola d'amores, are notoriously difficult to keep in tune. Hence, the plethora of viola jokes.

Did you hear about the violist who played in tune? Neither did I.

Joe and Eden, rehearsing for the Ariosti Ensemble Concert

Dr. Joe Ceo knows me from our work together at Salve Regina University (where he directed the orchestra for 17 years and I'm a voice teacher), and at the Chorus Of Westerly (where he plays plain old viola and I sing plain old Soprano 1). When Joe invited me to sing with the Ariosti Ensemble, we originally chose arias by Ariosti and by J.S. Bach. We've ditched the Ariosti and have kept the Bach. (It's "Stein, der uber alle Schatze" BWV 152, composed in 1714.) We've also added a piece by Leonardo Vinci. No, it's not the "da" guy who had a special code. This Leonardo came along about 250 years later, and I don't think he painted a thing. He wrote about 50 operas in his short life. He died at 43, poisoned by his girlfriend's husband; one of those dramatic endings that is also apparently true. I'm thrilled to perform Vinci's coloratura-centric "Mesta O Dio fra queste selve," written in 1728.

What's the difference between a viola and a trampoline? You take your shoes off to jump on the trampoline.

I invite you to ignore the viola haters, choose love, and specifically choose to attend this wonderful concert featuring the much-maligned viola d'amore. This is the final event of the Arts Commission's season. The concert will last about an hour and 15 minutes total. In addition to my arias, the Ariosti Ensemble will perform J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, and a world premiere chamber piece by Derek Ferris. Admission is always free, and  always includes a fabulous reception right after the concert. Since we have Derek's world premiere to celebrate, there will be champagne. So, I hope to see you at Christ Church on Sunday at 4 -- to listen, be merry, and drink. In that order!

We're ready!

 

 

 

 

Teaching Something or Otter

Balance your registers, singers! A story from a recent lesson: She is 10. To emulate her favorite country singer, she pinches her throat, squeezes her lips tightly, and tries to carry her chest voice so high she ends up yelling. She looks like she's in pain. She has no idea she is doing this. But her mother knows that something is wrong with the way she is singing, and that is how she ended up in my studio a few months ago.

I know she needs to find a head voice -- the lighter sound you hear in higher pitches. I know from my Somatic VoiceWork training that she has spent too much time in her chest range, like many tweens who listen to Top 40. Her voice is like a barbell with a 100-pound weight on one end only, and nothing on the other. She needs to balance her voice by strengthening her head register. If she does, she will suddenly have another octave or more of notes to work with, and she'll be able to sing with comfort and ease. In short, she'll be lifting evenly and with power everywhere. If she doesn't strengthen her head register, she will severely hobble her vocal range and become one of those singers who say at age 12, "I'm more of an alto."

To access her head register, we make angel sounds on "ooo", and emit whoops and sighs. Some singers can find head voice while singing traditional vocal exercises, but many singers just continue to tense up on anything that sounds like music. So, we take out melody and rhythm and just make a bunch of weird sounds. It's hard to tense up if you're whooping and sighing, and that's the whole point. Then we add melody and rhythm back in, slowly.

She still strains her neck muscles and pulls her mouth into a rhombus shape to reach higher notes, even on an "oo," which means she's not really accessing her head register at all. We push air into our cheeks and say "poom!" in a light siren-y wail as the air spills out, and she laughs and calls it "chipmunk sound." And there is her head voice, light and clear and easy. She has learned to identify it when she feels it (that is a major accomplishment in itself), but she doesn't think she should use it to sing, so at every lesson I have to sell its benefits to her again and hope that she'll buy. In her very limited singing and listening career, she has decided that she must sing chest in order to be heard and in order to be stylistically "correct." Every time she starts to sing, she defaults back to her pained chest sound. She's much more familiar with that and it feels easier just because she's done it more. She has no idea that her idols don't sing that way.

Chipmunk cheeks = Good. (Getty Images)

This is when singing lessons become more like therapy sessions. Somehow I have to convince this sweet girl that it's all right to sing with a mix of chest and head registers. She has to identify what those sounds sound like to her, learn how to make them at different pitches, and then analyze her current singing and deduce which register she is using when (chest, 98% of the time, but I can't just tell her, she has to figure it out, too). And then, she has to consciously decide that she wants to change her register because she knows it will sound better. All this, while singing pitches and forming words and looking like an engaged performer.

I imitate her chest voice technique so she can see how bad it looks and sounds. I have her look in the mirror so she can see how she grimaces to make a chest sound. "Should you have to grit your teeth and stretch your lips tight, to sound like your idol?" I ask. I pull up a clip of her idol on YouTube. "Does your idol look like she's being poisoned when she sings?" My student admits that, no, she doesn't. "Well, you do," I say bluntly. "You shouldn't have to work so hard to sing."

"But I don't want to sound like a chipmunk all the time!" she protests. Aha. There it is. She is worried that if she gives up the only kind of singing she knows how to do, she will sound so different as to be unrecognizable. I hear this all the time. It is very scary to be asked to renounce your vocal identity, to be told it is necessary to explore and embrace something that feels so foreign. It never works to say, "this is how you must do it." With adults and teenagers, I compare it to real estate. I say, "You aren't selling your house, you're just buying the lot next door and getting ready to expand." Explained this way, most singers are then willing to try some different sounds, knowing that I am not going to ask them to give up their previous sound -- only add on to it. They can keep their "old" voice and add on some "new" parts, eventually integrating them into a whole. But how to explain it to this sweet, scared girl?

Don't sing like the otter girls. (grrrooooooaaaaaann) (Getty Images)

I decide to see if she can explain it to herself. "Let's make some high squeaky chipmunk sounds again," I say. She is still having difficulty, so I grab a wooden tongue depressor and have her place it on her tongue, to feel how it rises and falls. "Do you feel how your tongue goes way up when you are singing higher?" She nods. "Can you keep it from going waaaaaay up, just let it go up a little?" She does. "It feels bigger in my throat," she reports. "And easier." Then we make some chipmunk sounds at lower pitches. "It's not quite the same, is it?" I say. "No, it's not," she reports. "It feels different. It feels lower in my face." We're getting somewhere. "What would you call it, then?" She smiles and takes out the tongue depressor for a moment. "That's a squirrel sound!" she says. "Okay!" I say. "Can you go between squirrel and chipmunk?" And suddenly she is swooping from her highest pitches to the middle of her range, darting down into her chest range and then soaring back up again. I know this means her larynx is moving freely. The tongue depressor is keeping everything in check. I can see her lips are active but not terribly tense. "Do you notice how strong and loud you are?" I ask. She nods vigorously.

Then we make some chest sounds with the tongue depressor in, just for contrast. The sounds are a little lighter now, since she has been spending time in her head register. "What should we call those?" I ask. "Otter!" she says gleefully. She darts between otter sounds, chipmunk sounds, and squirrel sounds. She is a virtual menagerie. If I wanted to bring all this vocal development to a screeching halt, I would just ask her to sing a five note scale. She would sing every note in her chest range, then squeak out a few pained high notes and tell me she doesn't like singing "high" and we would be back to square one. Instead, I suggest something. "Can you sing part of your song in chipmunk and squirrel voice, even with that tongue depressor in? No words, just chipmunk and squirrelly "ooh"s and "ee"s?" She considers my strange request, and then says, "Sure!" Out comes the melody, plus a bunch of other random notes, but they are light and free. "Was that totally squirrel and chipmunk, or did you also sing a little otter?" I asked, knowing the answer." She is thoughtful. "I think it was mostly squirrel and chipmunk. Maybe a little otter."

"I think you're exactly right," I respond, thinking that Miss Berlin at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory Of Music never taught me the Otter Method of Vocal Pedagogy With Tongue Depressor. "Oh yeah, it's like so much easier to sing in chipmunk and squirrel. Totally," she says.

"Now, try a little of the words, but you're still feeling that squirrel-chipmunk feeling, with a little otter on the lowest notes," I say. "With the tongue depressor still in?" she asks, incredulously. "Yep, with it in," I say. "Let's go really slow to give your mouth a chance to get it all together." We sing a dirge-tempo version of the melody. It doesn't work for every note, but it works enough that she is grinning at the end of the song. And her mother, who has been watching, raises her eyebrows in happy approval.

"I don't know how you are getting that sound, but it sounds great, honey!" Mom says. "Now, how am I going to get her to do this at home?" I hand Mom a tongue depressor so we can all feel what our tongues are doing. This makes Sweet Tween giggle even more. "Now make otter sounds, Mom!"

The lesson is over. She has accomplished so much in 60 minutes, and I tell her so. She sings a little bit of the melody, then stops herself. "That was my old voice," she says. "I'm going to sing it with my new voice." From experience, I know that the next time I see her she will sing with her old voice. She will probably start in her chest register. She will need to be reminded of what her head register sounds like and how to get there. But, she has made a great start. She has three animals for reference. She has tongue depressors to help her feel the action of her tongue, and she has a mirror for observation. Best of all, she has a willingness to change, because now she knows it will sound better.

 

The Seven, Vol. 10: Lenten Presence

1. It's Lent, Lent, time to repent! This is a lyric from one of my favorite Lenten songs, written and performed by The Dogma Dogs, a Catholic music group that started in Steubenville, OH. A sample lyric: "Inspect your life! Do you see some sin?/Let the alms and penance begin!" Oh, come on. It's better than Ashes. 2. What's your Lenten sacrifice, my eight blog readers? The Best Photographer In The World always gives up sugar for Lent. He's disciplined about it and usually loses weight. He can even make chocolate chip cookies for others during Lent, and not take a bite. I am a pretty terrible Lenten observer. I've given up Coke before, but have failed at consistently giving other things up. Recently I've tried to "add things in" instead of "giving up," hoping that would increase my compliance. A couple of years ago I resolved to sacrifice the time to pray the Rosary each day, and that was mostly successful -- I think I did it 25 out of the 40 days. But I always feel a little embarrassed about not being consistent. How hard can it be? Really hard, apparently. I am a Lent Fail. And not in a funny way.

But THIS is funny. 40 days of lint

3. This article by Kelly Wahlquist made me think of Lent in a different way. She talked about Lent as a time of service to God through quiet meditation and Eucharistic Adoration, service to her church through prayer, and most of all service to her family by doing all the little things with them that she doesn't really want to do. That last one made an unexpected impact on me, inspiring a very different feeling than the thought of sacrificing coffee or ice cream. What a challenge, to try every day to love my family the way God loves me. So that's my Lenten sacrifice -- dedicating myself to loving more, by sacrificing whatever makes me love less.

4. I just have to figure out what is getting in the way of all this love waiting to come out. Sugar? No, but I'm giving it up to be in solidarity with TBPITW. Alcohol? No, but I'm giving it up for the same reason. Facebook and Twitter and blogging? Uh . . . I need access to them for Bertandnone, the online business I run with Mr. Sugar-Free. But, I did make a small start. I have stopped taking my laptop into our bedroom at the end of the day, so I don't look at it at night and first thing in the morning. Instead, I talk with my family as they get ready for bed. I read books I've been meaning to get to. And in the mornings I focus on helping my kids get ready for school and being present for Sugarless Husband. Does it feel like a sacrifice? Sometimes no (when I get a ton of little things done, the kids aren't groggy, and we're out the door on time). Sometimes yes (I am so used to waking up and logging on immediately, it feels weird to just lie there and think). I know that God will give me lots of chances to practice Being Present.

5. I've also decided that being "present" means reconnecting with your past. Have you ever wanted to talk to someone you haven't talked to in a long while? This Lent, just do it! After a week of playing my newly installed family piano and seeing her notes all over the margins of my music, I reconnected with Dr. Christine Miller, my childhood piano teacher. I had Googled her before, and we had had an email correspondence a year ago, but I finally picked up the phone and called her. I had started lessons with Dr. Miller at age 8 in Jerome, OH. She had two Steinway grands side by side in a little alcove of her living room, with a prefab greenhouse right next to them. It was a beautiful place to take lessons, drilling scales while she sometimes stepped out to the greenhouse for a moment to pull a dead leaf off of a plant. Dr. Miller was an early adapter of technology. She had a small video camera pointed at the student piano, with a TV monitor resting on top of the closed lid. I would play my recital piece and we would review my performance in slo-mo. "You are playing that by the seat of your payants, Miss Eden," she would say, sternly. She would pause the tape to show me where I had used the wrong finger on the right note. I did that a lot. Still do. I mentioned that to her when we spoke on the phone, and she said in her soft, matter-of-fact Arkansas drawl, "Well, I tried my best with you."

6. Dr. Miller gave me my first professional music job, acting as her assistant a couple of afternoons each week. With the help of my interior designer mother, she had turned her basement into a spacious music complex. There was a large main studio with Oriental carpets, a comfortable waiting room with a wood stove, and a practice room for students pre- and post-lesson. I would keep hot water going in the teakettle and help the little kids with their theory and drills. I also turned pages for Dr. Miller when she gave lecture concerts on the American pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (she had been a finalist in the first Gottschalk Competition). She would always play a snippet of Gottschalk's "The Banjo" to try to convince me of the value of correct fingering.

Eighth Grade piano recital, around the time I was still practicing faithfully. (OMG look at the piano dolly casters!!)

7. By the time I was 15 years old, my attention had been diverted from classical repertoire to the high school show choir, where I was faking pop piano with chord symbols. I was also clearly putting more effort into voice lessons. But I was loyal and didn't want to leave Dr. Miller; I was stuck.

Freshman year (at home in our living room, with my sister Liana behind me), getting ready to accompany the Freshman Choir concert. Attention to solo piano playing already fading.

Driving me home after one of her Gottschalk concerts (I remember the windshield was frosty), she told me that after eight years together, she wanted me to take a break from piano lessons to focus on voice. There was no way I would have been able to stop lessons unless she had told me to stop. It was a kind and generous thing to do. A year later, she brought her latest technology to a small performing hall in Columbus, to professionally record my very first voice recital. It was a gesture of support and approval that I deeply appreciated. Dr. Miller is like that. I hope I've been half as good to my students as she was to me. And . . .like every single former piano student on earth . . how I wish I'd stuck with lessons.

 

Dreams, dollies, and pianos

Me, playing our new Baldwin Howard grand piano in 1979: Eden Casteel at the ivories, 1979

I loved that piano. I even held slumber parties under it (I can't believe my mom allowed it!). Our dog Honey came into our lives about a year after the piano. Honey decided that the piano underside was a great place to pee when he was desperate . . even when he wasn't so desperate. We did a lot of carpet cleaning. My piano-based slumber parties ended.

We were one of those families who had music nights. My dad would play from his fake books and would lead sing-alongs for the family, and also at every single party. We had a collection of at least ten hymnals from different churches where my dad used to play, and we'd sing out of those, too. I would play my assigned pieces from my teacher Mrs. Norris, and I would figure out how to play popular hits like "Summer Nights" by ear. My sister and I would dance and spin around the living room while my dad played something that sounded Spanish. The galley kitchen was right next to the living room so when I made mistakes while practicing piano, my mom would yell, "I think that's wrong!" Our house was an open style, and the piano could be heard throughout the house. I learned "Fur Elise" without ever reading the music, just listening to my sister practice it over and over again.

I always knew the piano would come to live with me, I just didn't know when or how. A few years ago my parents moved from their big house to a smaller one. I was ready to take the piano then, but somehow they made room. Last month my parents found a great, light-filled condominium that's perfect for my mom and her accessibility needs. But this time they knew the piano wasn't going to fit.

I did some google searching and asked friends for piano moving recommendations. I got two quotes and went with A-1 Piano Movers from Dayton, OH. Steve Hicks was kind and courteous. I happened to be at my parents' the day they came to pick up the piano. My dad played a few notes of "Dream," by the Everly Brothers, and then he closed the keyboard cover.

Packing up carefully, carefully

Yes, it is weird to see such a big hulking piece of wood and metal resting on its side. And yes, my heart rate did speed up as I imagined all the terrible things that could happen. None of which happened in the previous 36 years, mind you, and didn't happen now, either. The movers were in and out in less than 30 minutes, loading my childhood onto a truck.

It would take ten days for the piano to arrive in Rhode Island. I busied myself with a mad search for a piano dolly. I had read plenty of sensational blog posts about the danger of moving a piano more than a few inches on its own casters -- cracked legs, heavy thuds to the floor, thousands of dollars in repairs. I decided I was willing to pay for the safety and flexibility of moving the piano several feet to make room for a Christmas tree, some recital performers, or some really fun summer party sock hoppers. Maybe even some giggling little girls dancing to Spanish melodies.

And now I've done the homework, so you don't have to.

1. A grand piano transporter works just like a hydraulic tire jack. It costs thousands of dollars, but you can use it all by yourself. It's really only good for professional movers and rich universities. And where do you store it when your piano is not moving? Under the piano? Eeew. Ugly.

You can get this one on eBay for $2200. Go ahead and bid, I won't be buying.

 

2. A spider dolly is basically a rolling trivet that holds the legs in place. Most colleges, music schools, churches and universities use these. They cost about $700. Once the dolly is installed, one person can move the piano with a little muscle. One person can also accidentally shove the piano off the side of a stage if they aren't careful. Drawback: A spider dolly can raise the piano a few inches off the floor, making it uncomfortable to play. And it's ugly.

3. Piano leg dollies look like little roller skates for your piano, available for round and square leg shapes. The cost is about $200 or less, and you can get them for far less than that on eBay. Piano leg dollies are more aesthetically pleasing than spider dollies, but they still look a little weird. I got an up-close-and-personal look at a set in the choir room of Calvary Church in Stonington CT (because aesthetics) and thought they were passable, at least, and probably my best of limited options. I was ready to order, but then I discovered that all brands were too big for my piano's legs. The dollies are all three inches wide on each side and my piano legs are two inches wide per side. An online piano tech suggested that I could add shims to the dollies to make them sturdier, but the whole purpose of getting dollies was to make the setup look more aesthetically pleasing, not less. Also, you have to remove your piano's nice brass casters to put on the roller skates. I thought it was going to work, but ultimately I dismissed this option.

Check out the piano's "roller skates"! From www.homeguide.org

3. Finally, I found the solution: Shop-To-Showroom Dollies! They're double the cost of the roller skates, but I think they will work. You slip them under your piano's existing casters, move your instrument, and then slip them off again. Less like roller skates, more like house slippers. And you can hide them in a closet when they're not in use! I talked to a different tech and he said, yes, he sells them to obsessives just like me and they work fine. After I found this solution, I realized I didn't have to have dollies immediately ready for my piano movers to install, so I opted not to buy anything at the moment. When I'm ready to move the piano a little, I'll probably order a set of these. You can rent them from me if you need to, just pay me in Merlot.

The piano arrived on a sunny Friday afternoon. IMG_6205 IMG_6228Again, my heart skipped a few beats as I watched Steve and Sean reattach the legs and carefully turn the piano on those slender legs. Steve looked at the piano and at the space where it was going. "What a great place for this piano!" he said. Steve and I had exchanged several emails about my dolly-caster obsession but once he saw our house, he understood. "And you have a Baldwin Howard, made by Kawai," he said. "It's kind of like a Honda," I explained to my husband. "More like an Acura," Steve corrected. "Great instrument in a great space." They shuffled the piano along some moving blankets until it was centered on my rug. I watched Steve shift the piano a few inches here and there, just lifting a leg off the floor. He said that was all right to do, occasionally. I did reuse my parents' plastic casters to keep the brass wheels from denting the rug.

My own children circled this weird new house fixture that I had been talking about for years, and then they did exactly what I had dreamed they would do.

"Will you teach me to play?"

So, how do I play Coldplay, Mom?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, I did exactly what I had dreamed I would do. I played some Everly Brothers.

IMG_6259

Voice Lessons, Vocal Coaching, Piano Lessons, Performance Coaching, and Musical Production.

Eden Casteel Music Studio, 81 Post Road, Wakefield RI 02879. Phone: 401-932-5589.