Eden Casteel Music Studio

Innovative singing lessons, dynamic music coaching & more in Rhode Island and Everywhere

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

My Sunken Chest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organic

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

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

Eine Kleine Orgelbuch

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

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

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

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

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

 

Are you one of my eight blog readers? Click on "Get Updates" on the right hand side of my website front page, and join my email list. Thanks!

The "Babbino" Bunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good idea, Charlotte. (Alex Mills)

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Seven, Vol. 11: Sweet Abstinence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diva, ready

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

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

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

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

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

The Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nivea, the shimmer lotion for sopranos of pallor

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

The silver "star" bracelet from Sister Renee.

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

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

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

Tanned, rested, and ready.

 

Loving the viola

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

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

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

Joe and Eden, rehearsing for the Ariosti Ensemble Concert

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

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

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

We're ready!

 

 

 

 

Teaching Something or Otter

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

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

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

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

Chipmunk cheeks = Good. (Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Seven, Vol. 10: Lenten Presence

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

But THIS is funny. 40 days of lint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dreams, dollies, and pianos

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

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

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

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

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

Packing up carefully, carefully

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Will you teach me to play?"

So, how do I play Coldplay, Mom?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

IMG_6259

The Seven, Vol. 9: Let It Go

1. Have you heard that song "Let It Go", from the Disney movie Frozen? Of course you have. Note to pop culture: Let it go. Give Idina her big moment at the Oscars, and then let's all go listen to something else. (Am I being too much of a curmudgeon about this song? Perhaps. As a voice teacher, I've heard it a lot this winter. I enjoyed seeing the movie with my daughter. It was fun to hear Broadway voices sing a good score, and I enjoyed the story. I'm over it now.) 2. Me, I'm letting it go on Sunday, March 2 at 7pm, as part of the Composers' Collage Concert at the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center. I'm singing two new compositions by Eliane Aberadam, with Alexey Shabalin on violin and Hyunjung Choi on harp. We got together at Hyunjung's house to rehearse:

SopranoCam view of rehearsing with Alexey and Hyunjung

The first song, "Ocean Of Forms," is by Rabindranath Tagore: I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless/No more sailing from harbor to harbor with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on the waves. And now I am eager to die in the deathless. . . .  

And it has a high D!

The second song, "Winter Dusk," is by R.K. Munkittrick: The prospect is bare and white, and the air is crisp and chill; While the ebon wings of night are spread on the distant hill . . . 

Hyunjung's chocolate lab, Randy, had nothing to add but tacit approval.

Randy the musical lab.

3. This Friday, I'm off to the Chorus Of Westerly to enjoy their Charitable Auction And Soiree. For the past two years I've served as a waitress at these swank chorus events . . . this time I'm going to dress up and enjoy having my son will wait on me! I've seen the auction items and they are fantastic, and there are great deals to be had at all price points. I'm available at auction too  -- I've offered two one-hour voice lessons. We can sing anything you want. . .even "Let It Go."

4. This Saturday, I'm spending the day with scores of young singers at SongFest, the annual voice competition sponsored by  the Rhode Island chapter of the National Association Of Teachers Of Singing. Yeah, that's a mouthful -- so that's why we call it RINATS. Three of my students are participating this year -- good luck to Morgan, Jessica, and Sarah! Morgan's roommate Daniella is a film major and will be producing a short "documercial" about the SongFest, following Morgan as she performs and finds out the results.

5. About competitions. Yes, it can be scary to sing in front of strangers. But, SongFest is not an audition, so it has a slightly different vibe. SongFest's judges are all voice teachers who have students competing in other divisions (we never judge their own students). They are invested in your success, and they make deep, educated observations about your performance -- what works, what you can do to make it even better. Another bonus: All of the SongFest first prize winners perform at the awards ceremony, giving all participants a chance to hear a winning performance. This is a great way to evaluate new repertoire, and to see top talent in action. And, there's moolah! SongFest awards prize money not only to the first place winners in each division, but to an overall winner at the conclusion of the winners concert -- a special prize for the "first of the firsts." The whole day is open to the public. Even if you're not competing, come to the URI Fine Arts Center (yes, that's where I'm singing on Sunday night) and take a peek.

6. Until I find that rip in the time-space continuum, I can only be in one place at a time. Here are two events I will be sorry to miss this Sunday. But, you should know about them all the same. The Arts Commission of Christ Church Westerly presents a lecture by writer Dorothy Andries, about famous movie composers from the golden age of Hollywood. 4pm Sunday March 2 at Christ Church, 7 Elm Street, Westerly. Free admission. Delicious reception to follow. Pretty sure Dorothy won't be talking about "Let It Go." You've been warned.

image001

 

7. The Anglican Singers present a concert with the adult choir from the famous St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue NYC. The concert is at 5pm Sunday at St. Thomas Episcopal in New Haven. The highlight of the program will be the famous and rarely-performed Spem In Alium, a 40-part (yep! 40!) work by Thomas Tallis. I'm guessing Thomas had a lot of sopranos in his choir. For you non-musical folk: Many choral works are considered difficult if they have more than four parts. (Or at least that's when the singers start to complain.) Forty parts is  . .well . . . challenging. I'll be sorry to miss it, but La Voce must be rested for her concert at URI. I have to live like a nun before I sing -- no dairy, plenty of rest, avoiding everyone with the slightest sniffle. But after the show, it's milkshakes and sundaes. I don't let it go . . .I let 'er rip!

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. 8: What I'm . . . .

1. For shameless escapist pleasure I like to read blogs about WHAT I'M WEARING! WHAT I'M BAKING! WHAT I'M DECORATING! But, I'm not doing any of those things at the moment. Instead . . . 2. WHAT I'M SELLING!: Just look at this lovely Baldwin Acrosonic piano, with beautiful needlepoint bench in excellent condition. I've kept it in tune and have enjoyed having it in my home for lessons and recitals, and great parties for the past couple of years, but I need to make room for a bigger piano, coming soon. Do you want it? Make me an offer! photo 1 photo 2

Harry Truman played piano   , , just not this one.

3. WHAT I'M PRACTICING!: I've made headway in learning "Two Oceanic Poems" by Eliane Aberadam for my March 2 concert at University of Rhode Island! Here is the text of the second song, kind of appropriate for our snowy weather:

Winter Dusk by R. K. Munkittrick The prospect is bare and white, And the air is crisp and chill; While the ebon wings of night Are spread on the distant hill. The roar of the stormy sea Seem the dirges shrill and sharp That winter plays on the tree - His wild Æolian harp. In the pool that darkly creeps in ripples before the gale, A star like a lily sleeps And wiggles its silver tail. 

4. WHAT I'M PRACTICING, PART 2!: I'm performing with the Ariosti Ensemble on April 6. I'm singing an aria by Bach, an aria by Ariosti, and an aria by Leonardo Da Vinci, not to be confused with this artist:

This woman IS smiling . . because she found a cool aria.

Vinci's aria is called Mesta O Dio and it's going to be great! My smile will be obvious. 

5. WHAT I'M NOT DRIVING!: I said goodbye to my 2006 Saturn Vue last week. I owned it for 5 1/2 years. I'm proud of that car because I paid for it entirely myself, from the trade-in to the down payment to the monthly installments for four long years. It was a great car for my Michigan life (heated seats! All-wheel drive!). But when I picked up the keys, I had no idea I'd be moving to Rhode Island and driving hundreds of miles per week to ferry kids to school and to teach all over the Ocean State. Out here, the Saturn has been more of a pain than a pleasure.

6. WHAT I AM DRIVING!: So now I'm the proud owner of a brand new Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen, the first brand new car I've ever owned. I've never named a car before, but this one seemed to want a moniker. I asked my dad and sister for some good German girl names. My sister suggested Brunnhilde. My dad suggested Gretel, and after thinking about it, I decided it was perfect -- because with my unsteady sense of direction, I'm sure to get her lost! But we're now enjoying mpg in the 50-60+ range (no kidding!), so if I do get lost, I'll have plenty of fuel to find my way home. 

Gretel, not lost yet

When I turned on her stereo for the first time, I played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony . . . it seemed appropriate.

7. WHAT I'M READING: My brand-new car CD player is spinning Steve Jobs biography on 20 CDs. He was a jerk, wasn't he? A very talented, very smart, very charismatic jerk. Jerks can and do change the world for the better, but I haven't yet gotten to the part where Jobs found his own humanity. On a recent sleepless night, I finally finished the thousand-page Harry S. Truman biography by David McCullough. President Truman was fallible and human (and a decent pianist), but a person of great character, wasn't he? My favorite Truman story was his angry response to a music critic who panned his daughter Margaret's voice recital debut: "When I meet you . . .you'll need a new nose . . . a beefsteak above and a supporter below." So I guess he could be a jerk, too. (Truman and the music critic made up, eventually.)

Have fun doing whatever you're doing! EC

 

 

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

 

Simple Dreams

The great American singer, Linda Ronstadt: The Lovely Linda

Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 1: 

Dorky/adorkable Zooey Deschanel, often compared with Linda Ronstadt. (www.cheezburger.com)

 

 Dorky Linda Ronstadt wanna-be No. 2: 

The dorky sophomore Eden, about to sing from the Great American Songbook at the high school talent show, 1985

While I was learning how to ride a bike, Linda was enjoying a multiplatinum rock career and dating Gov. Moonbeam. She had even sung operetta on Broadway to good reviews, around the time I convinced my mom to let me get my ears pierced. I memorized "Blue Bayou" because my dad played it over and over on the 8-track in his Lincoln Continental. Occasionally I'd try to sing like her. I got kind of good at "Silver Threads And Golden Needles."

The Lovely Linda, singing a standard from the Great American Songbook, 1985

And one night, while I was asleep with Clearasil on my face, Linda appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" in a vintage dress, singing "I've Got A Crush On You" supported by the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. Some viewers thought it was an elaborate joke -- a rock singer, crooning a Gershwin ballad from 1928? But it wasn't a joke, it was a revelation. No other rock singer had so successfully crossed such a wide musical divide. (If this music is all new to you, watch this wonderful concert from beginning to end, just like I did for most of 1984! Thanks early HBO!) Ronstadt's three albums with the legendary Riddle -- "What's New?," "Lush Life", and "For Sentimental Reasons" were all surprise hits, and resulted in the following life-changing occurrences for a teenager living in Dublin, Ohio:

1. I was introduced to Frank Sinatra. Before Linda, I thought he was just the guy who sang "New York, New York." I rooted through my parents' old LPs to find more versions of the songs I first heard on Linda's albums, and discovered the genius of Sinatra (who had worked with Riddle), Julie London, Keely Smith, and Peggy Lee.  Sinatra's Where Are You? is the finest suicidally lovesick album you will ever hear. 

2. I discovered fake books. They're everywhere now, but in the mid 20th century fake books were illegal due to copyright restrictions. I had never seen one until my dad, intrigued by my interest in the "oldies" in the age of Madonna, dug into a box in his closet and produced several thick notebooks of yellowing lead sheets. He described buying them 'under the counter' at a music store in the 1950s. He played piano and organ in bars and restaurants to make money during his college years, and used the books to take requests and lead sing-alongs. I tore through them, learning novelty songs, ballads, and tunes from the Great American Songbook. I also learned that having music in a singable key is really important and most fake books totally fail in this regard, legal or illegal.

3. I learned to read lead sheets. Thanks to the sketchy, incomplete music in the fake books, I learned how to read chord symbols for the first time. My musical reading began to pick up speed, and I found a reason to stick with piano lessons. 

4. I learned I am not very good at arranging a tune. Riddle's masterful arrangements (he died before the last album was completed) were published as piano/vocal songbooks; I still have them and still use them. That dorky photo from the talent show?  Ronstadt had sung My Funny Valentine supported by a string quartet arranged by Riddle. I re-arranged it for three clarinets. Because my fellow sophomores Terri, Missy and Shelly were all good clarinet players and agreed to serve as my musical guinea pigs, that's why. They endured one Saturday afternoon rehearsal as I wrote and re-wrote. This was before Sibelius and Finale! It went so well I sang "I Only Have Eyes For You" instead, because the music was already in print and I had a pianist to play it. (And, now that I think of it, I sang it in the dorky key of C. Should have lowered it, but that was the key on the printed page. See No. 2.)

I just finished reading Simple Dreams, Linda's new musical memoir, and I eagerly read and re-read the few pages she devoted to her vocal technique! I hoped she would talk about how she did what she did, so I could pass on that wisdom to you, my eight blog readers. Well, she did, kind of. Linda was raised in a very musical home in Tucson but had no training for her pure rock singing. She always identified herself a soprano who sang rock and roll. But when she took on the role of ingenue soprano Mabel in a rock-tinged, mash-up version of The Pirates Of Penzance (a production and movie that spawned many other pop-style reboots of classical music), she knew she wasn't vocally prepared.

Linda as Mabel in "The Pirates Of Penzance," singing "Poor Wandering One" in the keys of her choice.

Linda: "Until I went to work in Pirates, I had never had any formal voice training. The show's vocal demands were considerable  . . ."The girls' chorus {was} belting high notes that had originally been written to be sung in the upper extension of the voice -- where an operatic soprano sings. It sounded funnier that way, and more like the contemporary pop style that Wilford Leach had envisioned for the show. Eight performances a week of belting high notes could have created serious vocal problems for the chorus. . ." 

Yes, Linda. Yes it could. I think your chirpy, high-pitched, head-dominant speaking voice actually helped to balance your chest-dominant singing voice for all those years and probably saved you from sounding like Yoko Ono. The music director of "Pirates" also lowered a lot of the keys for you (which you readily admit helped) so you could belt with gusto in the range you knew best.

"From all those years of screaming over a rock band, I had an overdeveloped belt range and an underdeveloped upper extension. [I hear it all the time, Linda! It ain't just you!]  . . . my high voice sounded more like a choirboy's than that of a grown-up lady opera singer. Rex [Smith, who played Frederic] and I, coming from rock backgrounds, had developed the unfortunate habit of muscling our way through difficult vocal territory and, for lack of a better word, yelling."

"Vocal coach to the stars" Marge Rivingston came to help Linda and the rest of the cast bring some balance to their belting, so they could survive eight shows a week, and they survived well enough to make a movie of the production. But the existence of the movie -- and its role in adding pop elements to opera -- means that almost everyone who sees (or produces) a live production of "Pirates" now expects to hear at least a little chest voice somewhere in the 2 1/2 hours. They don't realize the popera version has lower keys, shortened scenes, and rock instruments. They think that's the way it was originally written. It can make things . . .difficult.

Me as Mabel, trying to think of how to belt in original Gilbert and Sullivan keys

When I played Mabel a few years back, I knew I was expected to try to add a little Ronstadt somewhere, but soon I realized it was vocally impossible for me in the original keys, and we weren't going to be rewriting. It's only possible to belt "Go ye heroes, go and die!" if you're in a lower key, like she was. So, when I got to that scene, I did my best to act tough and belty, since my voice was going to have to stay right where it was, in head and mix range. Sorry. But, in honor of Linda, I transcribed her exact cadenza for the end of "Poor Wandering One", gave it to our flutist, and we performed it together for every show.

Linda's singing career ended several years ago due to the advancement of recently diagnosed Parkinson's Disease. This year she'll be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, but she may not be able to travel to the ceremony. I'm glad I saw her perform live in the late 1990s, when her voice was as strong as ever. Oh, that voice! 

(Depending on how you look at it, you can also thank her or blame her for The Eagles.)

The Seven, Vol. 6: Cats, kids, dresses

1. I have recitals to prepare, students to teach, plays to write, miles to run, family to visit and closets to declutter, but all I want to do on the bitter cold days is enjoy Love Appointments with my cats. That's what I call a purr-filled petting session, where all I do is try to make a cat deliriously happy. Some days that's about all I get done . . .  but that ain't so bad. Even better, some cats reciprocate. This is Boo-Boo Napoleon Kitty and this is his usual spot, right behind my neck, purring like mad. IMG_5234

2.  This is his other favorite spot, behind me on my office chair. His heat will move your soul. 

Boo-Boo's Got My Back

What does Boo-Boo sound like? Click here for The Purr That Heals The Broken World.

3. Lou-Lou Kitty declined to be photographed for this blog post; she worries that the camera will steal her spirit. But Cecilia C. Cat has put on her winter fur layer and spends most days hibernating on our bed, where I snap away:

Cecilia C. Cat aka "Meowiness," mid-yawn

4. Okay. No more cute cat posts. Here's my niece, this cute little behbeh! 

I know how you feel, kid

5. Here's my daughter, the proudest member of The Baby-Sitters Club, Cousin Edition:

IMG_5551

6. My other baby wants to play rock and roll. My son has a new electric guitar and is about to start lessons with the leader of Johnny and the East Coast Rockers.

John Paul B. Goode

7. This is exactly how I felt when I found a lovely new singing dress in late November: 

Dress up diva time

7.5: Here's the new dress. It's not by anyone famous -- JS Boutique, I think. It meets my Singing Dress Criteria (some kind of strap or sleeve so the dress is supported by my shoulders, formfitting but not too tight around the ribcage, slightly swishy, neckline somewhere between Vegas and Amish, easy to pack and hard to wrinkle, age-appropriate sparkle, to-the-floor length with no leg slit in the front, and some kind of front and back interest).  IMG_4553 IMG_4552

Finding The Dress!

 

I found it in November and wore it for a "Messiah" in December. If I learn that #$&@!!! music, maybe I'll get to wear it again! Incentive!!! XO EC

Thank you Macy's for having one to try on, and thank you Bloomingdale's for having one in my size!

 

2013, Resolved

Goals for 2013  What I resolved, and how I did: I want to learn how to prepare a few more healthy foods. I didn't learn how to make the Thai rolls, but I did make a lot of smoothies. That counts, right? I learned the hard way that kale doesn't blend so well in my blender. Bleech.

It's time to say goodbye to brown clothing -- forever. Khaki, you're next. I ditched all the brown, AND the khaki pants! I could never find anything to wear with them! Gray and black are my neutrals. What's more, I've said goodbye to about half of my closet. I just kept giving away stuff that didn't make me feel good, didn't fit well, or didn't fit my life anymore. It felt wonderful. I'm no minimalist, but I am really tired of managing crap I don't care about. Really tired. Let it bless someone else's home and life.

I love teaching, and I love breaks from teaching just as much. Keep doing this. I did this! I welcomed many new students into my studio, and I also started using Genbook to schedule lessons, which allowed me to schedule downtime, too. Genbook rocks! 

Breathing 101 with members of a church choir in Hartford, CT (April 2013)

 

Pray more and more and more . . . because prayer works. Yes. Yes it does. Prayer saved my brother in law's life in November. While my mother deals with the effects of Multiple System Atrophy, prayer keeps me from despair and overwhelming anxiety. Prayer is the most powerful way I can express gratitude and thankfulness. I pray in the shower, when I'm driving, when I'm running, and yes at church. Pray to whomever or whatever you want. Just pray.

Look who's kicking? The woman who never intentionally exercises, that's who! Way to go Mom.

Run a half marathon. Run a 10K. Run a 5K. Run. Or just tone up. Or just look like I've lost 10 pounds. My emergency trips to Ohio this fall did result in a 7-pound loss, so I ate 7 pounds of Christmas cookies to compensate. I ran a 5K on New Year's Day in Phoenix, and I ran a 5 mile race in Narragansett in October, but didn't run anywhere else. I promised my husband I would run a half marathon with him in 2014 so I'm beginning to train again. Happily, my 13 minute miles are quickly decreasing to 11 minute miles. How on earth did this happen? I blame the extra conditioning I have been doing with Fitness Blender and the LoloFit 7-minute HIIT Workout app.

Restrict Facebook and other cyber time wasters. The best thing I did: I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone. It is very hard to care about tweets when you can't see them on your phone. Glorious.

Say a long goodbye to my 20 year old cat Rebel, and have him make a peaceful trip over the Rainbow Bridge. After the big blizzard last winter, we both got terrible colds. I got better, but Rebel got worse. On Friday, Feb. 22 at 2pm we took him to the vet and said goodbye.

Goodbye my friend.

Five hours later I was onstage singing a recital. I had water, cough drops, and tissues on the piano, not sure what was going to come out of me besides music. When I walked in, I asked the (dear) organist Joey if he knew a certain piece. He did, and so I ended my Valentine's Day themed recital with "For I Will Consider My Cat," a love song by Benjamin Britten that was perfect for him and for us. 

I'm writing a short children's musical about Saint Francis. I wrote it, I directed it, and it was performed in May. My son stepped in to play Francis, only two weeks after playing Oliver in his high school musical. You can perform Francis Makes A Scene at your church if you like! I dedicated it to Rebel the Cat.

The Wolf, eater of birds, aka St. Francis' future pet. (May 2013)

St. Francis and his homeboys (May 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also wrote a third edition of "Quonnie The Musical," and created a website for the show, and the theater camp that preceded it. It was our biggest cast, and our best show yet!

QTM's Madame Director with two talented cast members! (July 2013)

Paint some landscapes. I aspire to be Winston Churchill. Paint some walls, too. And the garage doors. I painted nothing, not even my wagon. 

Travel more. Last year I enjoyed short trips to New Orleans and Montreal. This year: Colorado? Key West? Graceland? India? Nah. I made a lot of trips to Ohio to be with my family. Each trip was worth it. 

Figure out that contact lens prescription once and for all, and write it down so I can find the right contact for the right eye. I think I keep mixing them up. Fail.

Plant a smaller vegetable garden, to make room for more flowers and trees. This happened and it made me happy. Eden can only handle so much garden! We demolished most of the vegetable garden and decided to support local farmers' markets instead. I planted more bushes and trees this year; it will be fun to watch them grow. And I think we're getting asparagus this year!

Blooms, blooms everywhere (August 2013)

Continue to celebrate the end of orthodontia payments, car payments, and house payments (ALMOST!). My Michigan house finally sold at the end of January 2013, almost three years after it hit the market. On the night of the closing, we went to eat at a restaurant I had been saving for just this celebration. The restaurant turned out to not be worth the wait gastronomically, but emotionally it was the feast I had been waiting for.

Be at peace. That's my resolution for 2014, and my wish for all 8 of you who read this blog. Well, that and . . .

 

While You Were Sleeping

Dear Pete, You started coughing in mid-November. You were hospitalized with pneumonia on a Sunday, and we all figured you would get out after a few days of antibiotics. Five days later, my sister Liana (aka your wife of 11 years) texted me: "Google ARDS. Then pray hard." I Googled ARDS, prayed hard, and was on a plane to Columbus a few hours later. 

On the day you marked your first week in the hospital, we celebrated Liana's birthday. We had you on speakerphone so you could participate from your ICU bed. We got her a cake and a few little things. As she blew out her candles, we knew what she was wishing for.

Birthday girl Liana with eldest son Malcolm

Your wife grinds her teeth at 5am. I know this because I moved into your house and slept next to her for twelve nights. A few times I could barely hear her breathing, so I reached out to make sure she was there. Sometimes she wasn't; she would arise in the middle of the night and go to the ICU to sit with you. She didn't want you to be alone.

Your boys were very worried about you and did some acting out. The boys pummeled each other and made huge messes all over the house. Psycho Sally the dog ripped apart a lot of stuffed animals. Then again, that might not be a stress reaction, that might just be boys being boys and dogs being dogs. There was not much we could do except try to exhaust them all. Each day I would grip Trevor's hand and Sally's leash, and run as fast as possible across the green in front of your house. It seemed stupid until it actually started to work. It seemed really stupid when Sally broke free and took off for the neighbors' backyard at top speed. I don't know what spirit animal Sally is . . . Evel Knievel? 

Sally Christmas and Trevor, partners in crime.

The house was struggling too. The dryer only worked for ten minutes at a time before stopping, rendering the clothes inside smelly and damp. No one had time to call the repairman. The kitchen sink was backing up. The tub where the boys took their baths drained at a glacial pace. The coat hooks were falling out of the walls. Sally was crazy from being cooped up in a cage but no one had time to walk her. The turtle tank was bright green with algae . . . then again, when we could see him, Frisky seemed fine with it.

You grew steadily worse. You needed more oxygen. Your organs were stressed. Each morning the overnight ICU nurse would call with an update, rousing Liana out of her too-short slumber. Liana would hear the report and reply, "Oh, okay," hang up the phone, and go back to bed to fortify herself for another overnight. I paced the house and looked for something, anything to clean or organize, to keep from being terrified. We were expecting eighteen relatives for Thanksgiving. They were coming to be with my mom, who is battling a rare neurological disease. They offered to stay home, but we needed and wanted them more than ever. I decided we would tackle a bunch of home improvement projects, to make it easier on you when you came home. If you came home.

Kiki helps with the mountain of laundry.

Let's finish constructing this wall.

Paul and Kiki, sweeping the floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day before Thanksgiving, my husband was sitting in the tub fixing the drain. My mother was sitting in her wheelchair folding your clean laundry. I was hanging up clothes in your closet. My father returned from visiting you and Liana in the hospital. "There's not much else they can do," he said with tears in his eyes and pain in his voice. The pneumonia was gone but they didn't know why your lungs were still filling with fluid. No diagnosis, no treatments. "Pete will be on a ventilator soon." I couldn't leave the bedroom until my eyes were dry.

Liana came home from the hospital at 4am on Thanksgiving morning. We talked, then she took a sleeping pill and we went back to bed. You called two hours later, your voice soft but clear through the hiss of the oxygen mask. It was time for the ventilator. I awakened the boys, threw them in the car for the short ride to the grandparents', then drove your groggy wife to the hospital to see you before the procedure. You looked thin, tired and resigned. I took this photo because I didn't know what else to do. 

IMG_4648

Not being an ER nurse like your wife, I only knew one other person who was placed on a ventilator, and she only lived a short while afterwards. I said the same thing my father had said to you -- that I'd take care of your family too, if necessary. I've never had to say that before. And then I asked you for your email password, because your modem had broken too and I had gotten you a new one, and there would be no way to install it without your password. You gave me an incredulous look and told me the password.

I walked Liana to the waiting room. We stared at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on TV, with our arms around each other, while they were working on you. We came back in an hour later. Your body was controlled by machines. I held your hand and prayed the Rosary.

Liana began to shout at you through your deep sedation. "Pete! Don't fight the vent! Breathe with the vent." To my astonishment, your eyes flew open. You began to try to shape words around the tube in your mouth, but we couldn't understand. You frantically pointed to your chest. "Heart?" We played a surreal game of charades, trying to figure out what you were trying to communicate. "Heat? Hot? Hurt?" You gestured again and we got you a pen and paper. "I LOVE YOU," you wrote to Liana. Then you wrote, "THIS SUCKS . . . SCRAMBLED EGGS (that's what you wanted to eat) . . NOT SO BAD . . ." and finally, "ANXIETY." Liana had the nurse give you more sedative, and then you were out. You missed the Green Bay Packers game but we made sure everyone knew you were a fan.

Green Bay Packers fans are fighters.

We drove home in early afternoon to find the whole family busy, working on projects around the house. My mom was delighted to have all her family around, and we managed to have a warm family holiday. We laughed and even talked about something other than hospitals.

Chef Ron made sure 18 people had hot food.

It's finally okay to laugh

Liana went to bed and I stayed wired and awake, wondering when the phone would ring. It didn't. Day passed into evening and we slowly realized that the situation was very serious, but . .stable. We played our traditional family card game, called Pit. Each of us traced our handprints for Harry's "Family Holiday Traditions" banner project, which was due the following Monday. We wanted him to get an A plus. We wondered how we would trace your hand.

Making "Hands" for Harry's "Family Holiday Traditions" banner.

When the furnace died at 8pm that night, Liana and I just shook our heads and piled on a couple of blankets. One crisis per day.

The next morning, I called the furnace repair company. I called every half hour until someone showed up at 10:30. After an initial visit and a second visit to estimate, we discovered it was going to be a very expensive job, and unlikely to be fixed that day. I talked to the estimator as she stood next to the dead furnace. I told her the truth. Then she looked at me and said, "I'm not leaving this basement until your repairman is here." And she stayed and starting dialing like mad. I heard her say, "I need someone at this house NOW. The homeowner is coming home from the hospital tonight and he needs heat." When she got off the cell phone I said, "You know, he is not coming home tonight, he's far too sick. I don't know if he is ever coming home." She said, "I understand, but I have to say it that way to get the repairman to come today." The repairman was there in an hour, and we had heat an hour after that.

You had a lung biopsy on Friday. The surgeon said he didn't know if he would be able to find the cause of fluid in your lungs. He was maddeningly clinical. "Sixty percent of the time we never find out," he said. I heard that, and started cleaning anything I could find. On Sunday morning at 1am, Liana texted that you looked "icky" and her nurse-sense was sending off warning alarms in her head. You turned waxen and unresponsive; you had been given too much sedation. Liana paged the intern, had it reversed, and you began to revive. If she hadn't been there . . . .

After that night, the reports from the hospital began to contain some hope. You needed less oxygen. You could breathe a little more on your own. You were flirting with your wife. The ventilator was buying you time to heal. Meanwhile, a friend of Liana's had read about you on Facebook (I finally decided that respecting your privacy was not as important as marshaling support. TMI be damned!!) and showed up on Saturday morning. She proceeded to clean and organize the house for the next fourteen hours. She made a chore chart, taught the boys to put away their laundry, and gave Sally some obedience training. She MacGyvered the dryer so it worked, and we demolished the large pile of laundry at last. We were nourished by homemade meals brought by your coworkers, and the boys even had a slumber party with Grandma and Grandpa.

Harry eats the enchiladas made by your coworkers, who brought food every day.

Nanny Meg (aka Mary Poppins) helps the boys make get-well cards for you.

A little calisthenics before bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Mass for the first Sunday of Advent, Trevor sang at the top of his lungs. He didn't know the words to "O Come O Come Emmanuel" but he recognized the verse numbers, so he sang them instead. "Three FIVE, four TWO, Eeeemaaaaannneeelll. . .." Whenever the music stopped he would say loudly to the choir, "Good job!"

Incredibly, less than 24 hours later you were removed from the ventilator. A day after that you moved out of the ICU. The miracle we hoped and prayed for actually happened. We brought the boys to see you. When they walked into the room, your heart rate jumped and there was a lot of happy beeping from your monitors. Your sons forgot about you and checked out the monitors, and then they found the stash of chocolate . . .

We are family

After two weeks in Columbus, I returned to Rhode Island. You are getting better and better. I don't jump every time the phone rings, and I don't worry constantly about your wife and sons; they have lots of help and support for the weeks and months ahead. You'll be home in a few days to continue your recovery. You're drinking milkshakes and eating delicious food made by your coworkers. Liana brings her laptop to the hospital, and the two of you pay bills and balance the checkbook. You wondered about the large HVAC charge on your credit card that you didn't authorize. Just wait 'til you get home! You won't be able to find a thing! It will be a litany of, "Where are my socks?" (I mixed them up with Liana's.) "Who moved all the plates?" (Nanny Meg moved them closer to the dishwasher.) "What happened to that half-wall?" (It's now a full wall, finished by a group of beer-fueled cousins just prior to a big turkey dinner.) "What's the password for the modem?" (Same as before, bro.)

All you really need to know is that you are loved so much, by so many. We're glad you are here, and . . good morning. XO Eden IMG_4836

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mixed Media

  My lil' baby Edirol

I record most of my students' lessons and recitals on this beat-up, seven-year-old Edirol R-09 digital recorder. I love this thing so much, I wish they'd let me sell it across the country! I use it to record piano accompaniments and phonetic pronunciations. I record a lot of sirening and wailing and yawning that doesn't sound much like music, but is vitally important to making a relaxed, free sound. I record my own rehearsals and sometimes sneak the Edirol into my own performances, if someone else isn't going to record me (or even if they are). I know, I could get a mic adapter for my iPhone (Christmas is coming!), but I love this little guy. 

I know that some of my students rarely bother to listen to the mp3s I send after each lesson. But, it's important to take a listen, even if it's painful -- especially if it's painful! The way you hear and see yourself is not how others hear and see you. In the studio, I use mirrors and iPhone selfies and "instant replay" recordings to help students recognize and analyze their own sound and how they produce it. If they just stand there and sing, they can miss a lot. If they just listen to me, they will miss a lot.

This is my talented student Morgan:

If I open HERE, I get a really round sound! EUREKA!

Morgan made some wonderfully rounded sounds in her recent lesson. I asked her to describe and demonstrate what she felt she was doing differently as she made the new sounds. "It helps when I point my fingers here near my ear, to remind myself to feel my jaw opening from this point," she said. So we took a photo of her doing just that, to help her remember.

I didn't use technology enough in my own early singing, but granted, technology wasn't as easy to use as it is now. I have a few of my teenage and college lessons and recitals, recorded in the Pre-Cambrian Cassette Era. I remember recording them, but not listening to them to actually improve my singing. I listened to them a couple of years back as I transferred a bunch of cassettes to digital, and that was painful enough. The hazy memory is a thousand times better than my senior recital actually was (make that ten thousand times better). My Master's recital, given while I was five months pregnant, was punctuated by pitch sharpness in several songs. My teacher had mentioned it to me more than once, but I was sure -- certain -- I was on pitch. (I have perfect pitch! I'm infallible!) The recording revealed otherwise. I should have known better and recorded myself earlier. And no, I ain't gonna share. Listening to that CD led me to retool my vocal technique, and to invest in a tuner. Now I have this tuner app on my phone and I urge all my students to get it, too.

My son loves to laugh at train wreck tryouts on American Idol and The X-Factor, but I can't watch them. It's just too painful to observe people with no clue about how they actually sound and look in performance, and I hate the trolls that inevitably comment. That being said, I do keep a file of good, bad and ugly videos that I use to show specific vocal problems and their consequences, kind of a vocal Struwwelpeter (and if you know what that is without looking it up, congratulations!).

I know you want to see one. Okay.

[video width="540" height="360" mp4="http://www.edencasteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/I-Dont-Want-To-Walk-Without-You-Marcie-OBrien-Musical-Performance.mp4"][/video]This is not an audition, but a performance in a benefit recital given several months ago. I don't know any of these folks personally. The singer is obviously focused and engaged and has taken time to prepare, even delivering a (totally unnecessary) monologue to set up the song. The costuming and choreography distract from the song and the singer. The main vocal issue here is a too-heavy chest range and too-muffled head range, with no connection between the two. In fact, it's a textbook example of a lack of register balance. Before we troll all over her in our black little hearts, consider: What was the voice teacher telling her in the lesson? More importantly, what did the student hear and heed? It's frustrating, as much of this is fixable and addressable. But for all we know, a lot was fixed already.

Other videos from this particular recital are getting thousands of hits, especially a sluggish, much-too-literal rendition of "Stars And The Moon" from Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, complete with an unnecessary monologue. I'm not a rabid JRB fan, so delaying the conclusion of one of his songs would not be my choice. A simple YouTube surfing session would have given clues for appropriate tempo, style and staging.

Some people are beyond help. Here's a video of a loser trying outsing Elton John . . in the presence of Elton John. I can't believe she put that on YouTube.

 

The Seven, Vol. 5: Stopping time

Is it just me, or does the year speed up suddenly in November? This is problematic, for there is so much I want to savor and remember. . . . 1.  I'm looking forward to hearing phenomenal organist David Hill at Christ Church in Westerly on Sunday Nov. 10 at 4pm. It's a free concert and there is great food at the reception! The first organ concert I ever heard was while I was studying in Graz, Austria in 2005. Every Sunday night the local Dom hosted European and Russian performers, and I got hooked. Organ concerts are like no other kind of performance, allowing a very pure form of listening. You can't see what the organist is doing, so you can only marvel at the endlessly fascinating sounds that spill out of the pipes. It's the same instrument, but it's completely different as it's manipulated by different sets of hands and feet. If you haven't been to an organ concert yet, I suggest you enjoy a mountaintop experience with one of the very best artists, on a very fine instrument. See you on Sunday.

2. I just finished teaching a five-week voice class with singers from The Chorus of Westerly. We talked about breath support, bright and dark sounds, vowel shapes, and how to sing notes that are really far apart, all in preparation for our first concert of the season. That's Sunday, Nov. 17 at the George Kent Performance Hall. We're doing John Rutter's Mass Of The Children and Morton Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. Both works are quite recent and the composers are still living (Lauridsen recently emailed our choir!), but the music is steeped in the traditions of chant and English melody. Best of all, it's intensely hopeful. If you mashed up the two works, you'd have one giant spiritual statement of great beauty, deep emotion, and really wide intervals. No disrespect, Eric Whitacre, but I prefer these guys. Here's the most famous section of the Lux Aeterna. We all have a lot going on in November, but to me that is even more reason to stop for an hour, and just bask in beauty. You need it. We all need it.

photo 2

3. My family's Operation Christmas Child boxes are packed and ready to travel! Here's what I included in the boys' boxes (ages 10-14): A deflated soccer ball, ball pump, two pairs of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, flashlight, batteries, notepad, "instant" Christmas tree, tape measure, Sour Patch candy, Pop Rocks candy, Mentos candy, Patriots water bottle, kazoo, yo-yo, kaleidoscope, deodorant, combs, mini-race car, and mini-Legos. This year I think I really "got" the right mix of stuff. It's not too late for you to visit the website and build a box online!

4. I visited my folks in Ohio. My mom has to do leg exercises each morning, so I joined her in support and solidarity. Bridget helped by adding some furry resistance. We laughed a lot.

photo 4

5. The Best Photographer In The World just finished his second New York City Marathon. Let's forget that two years ago, covered in ice packs at mile 20 of his first New York Marathon, he declared I could divorce him and take all his money if he ever tried to run a marathon again. This was a much better experience for both of us! He wanted to have a really good run with no injury, and that's what he had. I intercepted him a few times and made sure he wasn't hurting, or in need of a snack. Each time I saw him he was happy and relieved that his knees were holding up. He lost all energy as soon as he crossed the finish line, and I steered him back to our hotel. He made very strange sounds in the shower, and then we celebrated his accomplishment with room service:

A cup of soup, some burgers, a soft bed, several glasses of ice water, and thou

6. Actually, the best part of Marathon Weekend was meeting our lovely newborn niece . . . .

Aunt Eden and Baby O

. . . . whose schedule would humble the most indefatigable runner . . .

7. Let alone her dear dad.

Mile 20 or Mid Morning, who really knows

 

 

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.