Eden Casteel Music Studio

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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 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.