Eden Casteel

Rhode Island Based Voice and Piano Teacher

Eden Casteel Music Studio: Learn more about Eden, her teaching, her students, and how to book lessons.

Filtering by Category: Singing

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

O Mio Casteel Caro

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 5.06.47 PM About once a month I hold a Studio Class for my student singers. Some are preparing songs for auditions and performance. Some are working to get over stage fright in front of a small, supportive audience. Some just come to enjoy a casual, informal afternoon of music. We sing for an hour and everyone offers comments and suggestions on how to improve. We have a break for tea and cookies (and delicious desserts by moms), and then we sing some more. It's fun and lighthearted, but also productive. We make a lot of music and everyone leaves happy. My parents visited last weekend to cheer on my son in his high school play, so I scheduled a Studio Class just for their visit.

Three Casteels, cheering on  a young thespian son/grandson

I was thrilled to show off several of my talented students. My parents were delighted to see and hear them and, just like they did for me as a young singer, they made constructive comments and did a lot of cheerleading. At the end of the class, my dad (always my favorite accompanist) and I decided to join in the fun.  This aria is about a dad and a daughter, so it's a natural for us, and we've performed it countless times. Click here, or on the photo if you'd like to watch us perform! The video cuts off right after the end of the song, so you can't see the wonderful long hug my dad gave me right after . . just like always. I'm so glad my students got to see that too. We made a lot of music and everyone left happy. Want to come to a Studio Class? 

"If you forget the words, just look over your Dad's shoulder."

Unaccompanied minors

"They want me to sing sixteen bars a cappella," the student says as we start to prepare her for the audition. "What?" I ask. "No pianist?"

"No music at all, just me singing," she says.

What I'm thinking: "But you're auditioning for Fiona from Shrek! In the show you will have to belt high D-flats. How will they know you can do it? As your voice teacher, I know that having the musical score underneath helps you nail those notes. Unless the music director has perfect pitch or has a tuner handy, they won't know if you (or any other singer) can sing the notes the score requires you to sing. This is stupid. I can't believe you're expected to audition a cappella for a show that will have a full orchestra in the pit. That's like signing a baseball player to the team after he walks the bases, or telling McDonald's to cook your Quarter Pounder medium rare.

So they don't want to pay a pianist for auditions, or they don't have access to a piano in the audition room. Okay. You mean to tell me that no one in your drama organization can figure out how to provide you with a karaoke track to give you at least a little support? Well here, I took 25 seconds and found it on YouTube, and now I'm playing it on my phone at high volume. You can do this at the audition, if they'll let you. Or at least listen to it right before you go in. Definitely buy the Cleartune app, which can give you your starting pitch.

I don't blame you, student. I blame American Idol and Pitch Perfect, which have made a cappella auditions seem cool. In fact, a cappella auditions are often terrible and they make iffy and nervous singers sound horrid. Even professional singers can sound slightly unsupported and shaky in an a cappella format, without the bass line and melody of the score to balance out the voice. Most amateur singers don't know how to edit a song for a cappella performance. The singer continues to "hear" the melody of the accompaniment in their heads and they unwittingly include it, but the auditioners only hear awkward silence, and that ruins the energy of an otherwise good audition. Who thought this was a great idea for less experienced kids and teen singers?

I can't believe that in addition to teaching notes and rhythms and performance skills, I now have to teach you how to sing an accompanied song unaccompanied, just because someone thought it would be "easier." I just have to cross my fingers and hope that you sing the correct pitches in your audition. It stinks because I know that pitch accuracy matters, every time you open your mouth. Ultimately you will be singing with accompaniment, so you have to sing what's written. But your auditioners won't know if you're accurate or not (or if anyone else is, either). You could be vocally perfect for this part and sing a flawless audition, but you could easily lose out to someone who actually can't sing the role at performance time. GREAT IDEA, A CAPPELLA."

What I say: "Okay, here's your starting note. Go."

 

 

 

Eden's Ins and Outs for 2015

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

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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.

 

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! 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Sunday in the studio with Eden and Eliane

Eliane Aberadam is a professor of composition at the University Of Rhode Island, and my fellow soprano at the Chorus of Westerly. On Sunday March 2 at 7pm, In URI's Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, I'm going to sing two "Oceanic Poems" she set to music: Ocean Of Forms and Winter Dusk, with Alexey Shabalin on violin and Hyunjong Choi on harp(Yes, you can come! The pieces are part of a Composers' Collage Concert. It's FREE!!! But . . donations are accepted.) I've been running the pieces for months now, but just on my own. I'll rehearse with Alexey and Hyunjong next week. They have played the pieces before with other sopranos but it's new to me, so Eliane recently came over to my house and we worked on the details. It's not often that a composer comes and sits at my piano to coach me, so The Best Photographer In The World commemorated the occasion (there was a break in the ice dancing competition).

This is Eliane, faking the harp and violin parts that will accompany the vocal.EdenRehearse-19 This is me trying to count in multiple meters while singing some high notes.EdenRehearse-15"

The harpist is very good, much better at harp than I am at piano," Eliane said apologetically, and she gave me a harp anatomy lesson right then and there. I didn't know, and it is really cool. Harpists, you're awesome. EdenRehearse-12 This is me being granted permission to change a word stress from sob-bed to soooooooobbed. EdenRehearse-6 Since Eliane gave me a harp history lesson, I gave her the history of my Story & Clark piano and music stand. Both were gifts from Margaret Vogel, a family friend and neighbor. She would "hire" my sister and me to serve as very short waiters at her frequent parties. We would take coats from guests and lay them on the bed, we would pass hors d'oeuvres and clear plates. At some point Margaret would usually ask me to sit down and play her piano. There was a cigarette stain on one of the G keys, made by her chain-smoker husband Jack, whose favorite song was "Born To Lose." The wooden stand was in her formal living room and it always held the family Bible. When Jack died, I sang "Ave Maria" at his funeral. Margaret downsized from their big home to a smaller residence, and she called my mother to say that she wanted me to have the piano and the wooden stand in gratitude. She knew I didn't have a piano in my apartment and she thought I'd love to have hers, and oh she was right. It was the most unexpected funeral "compensation" I've ever received, and I am still grateful for it every day. EdenRehearse-1As Eliane and I were finishing up, two movers came to take away the other piano in my home -- my Baldwin Acrosonic. I listed it for sale here on this blog last week. It came from the home of a neighbor who was moving; her daughter had practiced piano on it and all I had to do was pay for the moving. It has been my "backup" piano for two years, a very nice instrument that allowed me teach or play in two different locations in my house. And it looked good in an empty spot in my living room.

A friend of mine called almost as soon as the post went up. She knew of a family that had two kids who loved to play, and were doing well in lessons, but had only a small keyboard for practice at home. I knew it was meant to be their piano. And so Eliane and I watched as the Baldwin rolled out of my house.

Godspeed, Acrosonic!

They didn't have to sing for it, but I hope they enjoy it as much I have enjoyed Margaret's gift to me. Maybe someday a composer will play on their piano, too.

And now we wait.

The Seven, Vol. 7: Lung me tender

1. So I'm recovering from the flu. No one else in the house got it but me. I'm sure its nastiness was blunted by the flu shot I got last October, but it still got me good: Muscle aches, fatigue, fever, and this damned cough. I have been coughing for over a week now and am having difficulty stopping. You know that awful feeling, when you are trying to stifle a cough but can't? Yeah, that's me all day long. 2. I have tried honey, Prednisone, red wine, hot baths, Mucinex, Maximum Strength Tussin. I'm also hurling prayers to St. Blaise, the patron of throat ailments (he did some miraculous things for a kid with a fish bone caught in his gullet). St. Blaise said he's busy with all the other coughing singers and he'll get back to me. Blaise's feast day is next Sunday, Feb. 2 and I can think of no better way for him to celebrate than to heal my throat.

St. Blaise, you know what to do

3. The rest of me is fine, it's just the coughing, and it's keeping me awake at night and tired during the day. I watched the entire miniseries Cranford (it was like watching a long movie treatment of an Austen novel, but with many more deaths). I caught up on New Girl and The Mindy Project (aren't they the same show?), I saw the movie musical Nine (really liked Fergie's performance but not Nicole Kidman's) and Frances Ha (lame). I can't seem to focus much on reading at the moment but I'm trying to get back into my Truman biography and also The Sellout, about the history of the 2008 financial meltdown. I was hoping these heavy tomes would help me sleep. Didn't. The Best Photographer In The World said, "When I can't sleep, I start saying 'God Bless' and start naming everyone I can think of, and it helps." Yeah, he's just a saint, ain't he? I did it, it helped somewhat.

4. My coughs are (ahem) not very productive, but my bronchial passages are so irritated, they just freak out at the first sign of air moving through them. I can feel that squirmy "I gotta cough" feeling as I breathe. I don't even want to THINK about how red my little larynx is right now. I am the singer who should be told to just shut up and rest. But somehow I managed to teach two whole days and cantor two Masses this weekend. I didn't say it was pretty, just said I did it.

5. I thought it was just a bad cold, because it wasn't nearly as debilitating as the last time I had full-fledged flu nine years ago, so I downplayed it. It took me over a week to see a doctor who told me, no, it was flu. If I had realized it in time, I might not have attended the three-day Somatic VoiceWork conference with all my voice teacher peeps. (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I was careful to quarantine myself as much as possible, and I limited my socializing!) Though I was a bit lonely in my self-imposed isolation and couldn't sing a note, I managed to have fun and as always, I learned a great deal and continued to solidify my own pedagogy. We hear from speech therapists and pathologists, we share techniques and advice, and we practice teaching each other so we can benefit our students back home. Analzying the vocal function of a great singer in front of Jeanie -- whose veteran ears are sensitive to even the smallest vocal changes -- sometimes feels like doing differential diagnosis with Dr. Gregory House. Which is why it's so fun!

Jeannette LoVetri listens carefully as Level III Grad Justin Petersen explains his pedagogical thinking during Teacher-Teaching-Teacher time. Justin tells me that the accurate caption of this photo is: "Does the fear on my face inspire your confidence, Jeanie?" ;)

 

My ears get such a great tune-up and when I see my students again, I can make finer and finer adjustments to their singing. That is, when I am not trying to protect them from my coughing.

6. I'm going to try this throat-calming recipe from Dr. Peak Woo. Besides having an awesome name, Dr. Woo is one of New York's most prominent otolaryngologists and a friend to Jeannette LoVetri, our SVW founder and guiding light. He has treated a lot of famous throats and this is his The Gargle Of The Stars: Mix together some saline (6 oz water with 1 oz non-iodized salt); some large sugar molecules (1 T honey, or white corn syrup or glycerin), some baking soda to coat the throat (1/2 t), and a wedge of lemon (to promote saliva). This gargle is safe to drink, but you go ahead without me.

7. We watched some really funny videos on the first evening of the SVW conference, including a hilarious one of some famous Italian opera singers insisting they never, never ever used chest voice. At all. Nada. Then they started singing and proved themselves wrong with every single note. Even better, they were being interviewed by a countertenor who used nothing but head voice! Enjoy, especially if you're a voice teacher. We were laughing so hard, I bet no one even heard me coughing. XO EC

 

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

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