Still Good Insight

This from a Facebook post of past years. I believe it’s a great place to start reforming our interactions. Consider.

Friends, I just had an insight that I feel inclined to share. Without going through the process of observation and thought that lit this bulb in my head (a mundane series, actually), here’s the essence: We are each called to love and help all who are in our circle of contact (even this cyber circle). No, we cannot ignore the world’s suffering and the severe needs of our country; we must work together for a greater peace and social justice (churches and other organizations need our collective and individual help).

Yet, it is those nearest us who will more immediately and significantly feel/benefit from our help and influence. Obviously, this means family, coworkers and associates, those we deal with at the gas station, in the market place, etc. For those of us who are artists, performers, composers, conductors, educators, etc., it is obvious that we are in a position of great influence and sharing, through the gifts of art and knowledge. I hope that you will join me in this awareness, and we can make a tangible difference in lives all over the world during this Advent/Christmas/Hannukah/holiday season.

An Argument for Knowledge in Art

Music, other art, literature – all things that bring a degree of joy/enjoyment, refreshment, inspiration, clarity, etc. – these gifts are valid and potentially powerful when taken in casually or with no real preparation. If the audience member has at least a sense of what is about to take place, they can expect a deeper, more engaging, and longer-lasting experience.

As I have often said to my students, when we understand essentially how a process works, we’re more likely to let it happen (to some degree, even the intricate physio-acoustical processes that enable good singing). This realization helps singers to engage vocal and performance techniques more easily and powefully; they are less likely to manipulate the voice, to inhibit artistic expression or truth. As I’m fond of saying, the imagination does its work to unite various tasks into a singular performance – no pushing buttons or flipping levers.

It strikes me today that music which is immediately attractive or enjoyable can be even more deeply powerful – to some degree, life-changing – if the listener has the slightest bit of knowledge about style, historical context, composer, poet, even the performers. A general overview from a Music Appreciation class or found in effective program notes can be so valuable. The simple opening of the mind before listening can open the heart even more powefully for greater enjoyment as the music is taken in.

Artistic Voice

I wrote these words to a dear composer/friend, after having just heard one of his more recent compositions.

Hearing your performance of your music now and knowing your overall catalog as well as I do, distinctions between artistic voice, musical/textual language, and cliché come to mind. In essence, I’m going to write these few words about how composers, improvisers, and performers in general – how we use some of the same sounds, elements, and choices frequently (those musical elements and attitudes that make Mozart identifiable as himself, not as Haydn, etc.), without merely copying ourselves as though warming up leftovers for tonight’s dinner.

Your rhythmic textures, melodic and formal landscapes, and harmonic choices are uniquely yours, even though no singular element does not exist elsewhere. We all create in the context of everything we’ve heard and experienced previously, from others and from ourselves. The legitimate, essential teaching tool of copying the choices of others plays into the creative potential. As I often impress on my voice students, we explore sounds, attitudes, and expressive options by imitating great singers. The big caveat is that we don’t stop there; we find what is authentically our own through this kind of exploration.

Here the quote from Lee Hoiby comes to mind, that there’s still much to be said with triads (in your case, m/M 9th chords and others!).

Truth is truth.

“Truth isn’t truth,” he said. “My version” of the truth may not match yours – in which case our definitions or boundaries may not line up with each other. This doesn’t necessarily mean either position is untrue.

However, if two or more parties agree on the parameters of discussion, there is only one true version, regardless of anybody’s perception. There are certainly many vantage points from which to observe truth, but conflicting statements do not take away what is true.

I learned this many years ago: perception and reality (truth) are certainly not the same thing. We may change reality, but the perceptions of others are beyond our ability to alter.

Truth is truth.


[Update: the new CD, Forever Sing, was released on May 7 by Affetto Records (distributed by Naxos), and is available at iTunes, Amazon, and all other download sites.]

​I am relieved, gratified, and excited (don’t forget tired) as we completed all but one of the recording sessions for the upcoming CD – as yet untitled, but devoted to Psalms, with a short final group of Gospel music and hymns, to be captured next month with the help of Donald Dumpson. Last month, we recorded Sowerby, Freed, and MacDermid, with the wonderful organist Noel Werner. This week, my long-time, peerless piano collaborator JJ Penna and I completed Psalm settings of Dvoràk, Honegger, Rubbra, and Laurie Altman. The brilliant Sam Ward engineered the sessions for John Baker’s label, Affetto Records.

I’ll admit to bias, but this project is perhaps the most exciting of all, everything considered. I am so grateful to be in wonderful voice these days, better able than ever before to serve the art and imagination. Singing is surely a joy!

About Practice

In looking through some old documents, I ran across the Practice Guide that I give my students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. It offers direction on what good practice is, and how it can helpful. A portion of this document was posted on this blog a couple of years ago, but I think it bears repeating:

WHAT is practice? According to Merriam-Webster, practice is “systematic exercise for proficiency.” Practice must involve experimenting/improvising (creative energy), but it is primarily to channel that energy into training. Practice is the investment of hours and years to build a resilient, dependable technique (method of carrying out a skilled activity). Practice is what one does to bridge the gap between his/her best intentions or dreams, and reality. In other words, practice is making consistent the application of desired choices; one practices making choices, so that they become “second nature,” automatic, as natural as breathing.

WHY practice? Learning without application is of questionable value; in a skill such as singing, learning is arguably worthless—unless validated by consistent practice. One does not learn to sing only in the voice lesson; vital concepts are introduced there, but the student builds with and upon those concepts/techniques in the practice room (studio class, the coaching studio, the opera rehearsal, the choral rehearsal, in performances…). It is important that techniques introduced in the lesson be promptly, thoroughly and regularly supported by generous amounts of time in practice. Much influence comes from teachers, coaches, conductors, colleagues, etc., but the student must embrace his/her right and responsibilities as Chair of the Vocal Board.

Practice is also about rediscovering and affirming choices that have previously been identified as desirable. This truth is essential for continuing progress, as one builds a cohesive network of choices that make up technique. As a singer develops and matures, it is critical to rediscover earlier choices and make subtle adaptations.

Perhaps the most important reason to practice is to develop confidence. If one does not “work out” the technique that is ostensibly being developed, he/she must depend on over-effort and luck. To come to a voice lesson or performance without effective and frequent practice—thus to be constantly “on guard,” often second-guessing oneself—does not allow the singer to make valid, true artistic choices. He/she will not develop the technical freedom that empowers expressive freedom, and will quickly lose faith in the technical approach.

Any activity (such as singing) is more rewarding and fulfilling when one is well-prepared, and has therefore earned the expectation of success. Besides, practicing well is often exhilarating and always good for the soul!

WHEN to practice? In short, at least three times a day, for a minimum total of 75 minutes; it is better to practice frequently in relatively short segments. Make practice sessions a priority in the daily schedule; enter them in the daily planner. The length of time in daily practice (six days a week, with a “vocal Sabbath”) may often be more than 75 minutes, in addition to ensemble or opera rehearsals. If more repertoire is in process (or if the student learns music/text slowly), more time will be needed in practice, as well as in research. Be certain not to actually sing for more hours a day than freshness and vocal health can be maintained; on days of heavy rehearsing or performances, some of the practice should be silent. (Ask me for suggestions on silent practice.)

WHERE to practice? Listening to recordings, even while in the practice room, is not actually practice; it is preparation for practice. Though one must not learn music from any recording, an initial hearing can be helpful, with occasional listening to the same or different recordings of the same repertoire. The library or the computer desk can also be excellent places to prepare for practicing, as the student researches texts and sources.

Find a room with a piano, where disturbance and eaves-dropping are unlikely. The room should be well-lighted, with good circulation. When entering the actual practice room, turn off or completely silence the cell phone. Distractions cripple one’s efforts to improve and grow. Lack of an ideal practice room will not stop the committed student from working, however.

WHAT to practice? The lesson is a guide for practice. The notes/recordings that are made in lessons must include vocalises. Be creative in adapting those vocalises in helpful ways.

The typical practice day should have a warm-up vocalization session, a second, hybrid vocalization/repertoire session, and a third session to emphasize repertoire. The warm-up session lasts approximately 15 minutes, early in the day, preferably before much talking—certainly before singing in classes or rehearsals.

Vocalization will include both florid and sustained patterns, though the emphasis will vary. Two or three pieces should be the center of the repertoire work each week. The assignments that I make at the end of each lesson must be observed, and are guidelines for the week’s practice.

HOW to best practice? It is important that the warm-up session, in particular, begin in the middle or lower middle range, eventually moving up and down in pitch; there may be several minutes of breathing exercises before vocalization begins.

Set realistic goals for each session; e.g., one session may focus on greater awareness of deeper, more settled breath, on memorization, or a specific technical concept. Obviously, significant time is invested in learning musical and textual accuracy. A Practice Journal (brief notes describing what was attempted and achieved in each session, and how time was used) can be helpful. In fact, I require some students to include it in the Voice Notebook, particularly if preparation is not good. Record a practice session at least once or twice a week, particularly when the accompanist is present; later review can be informative and inspiring.

Each singer has unique gifts and unique challenges. Do not measure progress merely by comparison with others; the important comparison—one that each of us can affect—is today’s self, compared to yesterday’s.

Grounds for Thought

We just returned from an opening reception at the splendid Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. It is a place that must be visited to be visualized, not at all what one might predict.

It was fun to meet and chat with the woodwork artist, Steve Madsen, and we enjoyed his works immensely. They are marvelous, sometimes whimsical, often functional, colorful, of substance, aesthetically fulfilling, witty, challenging, engaging and enjoyable. We felt a sense of kinship with Steve, as is so often the case among artists. He is from beautiful Albuquerque, and we have often been there to visit family, so that was also a point of reference.

Also opening at GFS today was a collection of pieces by Jesús Moroles, who works with granite. Wonderful, mostly large-scale works created from a very hard, difficult material. Moroles’s artistic concept is essentially contained in this quote, “Parts of what I attempt with my sculpture are to bring the quarry into the gallery – to make the stone important by drawing attention to it, and to show the finished piece as the result of its interaction with the context. The stone itself is the starting point. I always choose pieces that already suggest their final form. By working directly in response to the character of the stone, I hope to expose the truth of the material.”

The perceptive artist/singer/student–even the observant voice teacher–will find inspiration and application in this discussion.

P.S.: Visit for information on the splendid and vibrant Grounds for Sculpture. The exhibits of Madsen and Moroles continue through September 2009. I highly recommend a visit!

Parenting Skills for the Singer

Wait…this post is intended for every singer, not just those who have (or will have) children.  The relationship that each of us has with our singer-self (and with “the voice” itself) is a lot like that of a parent and child.  Just as the role of a parent changes according to the seasons of life, so change our responsibilities towards the creative self.  At various times, we must encourage, demand, challenge, affirm, and enable the singer-self to find its potential.  Yet, at all times, the care that we offer must be based on love and acceptance, even when it is “tough.”

One must take an honest view of the talents with which he/she is gifted.  When a singer receives the compliment, “You have a beautiful voice!” or other such accolades (music to our ears), the appropriate response is, “Thank you.”  That same expression of gratitude is more rightly addressed to the One who created our minds, bodies, souls and spirits in the first place.  Truly, the singer did absolutely nothing to acquire those talents.

To recognize, believe in, train and develop one’s gifts, though — here is where the opportunity for good parenting presents itself.  The mother or father who senses talent (potential excellence) in a child should make it possible for the child to explore the medium (sports, music, acting, visual art, writing, etc.).  Those parents make available performances, recordings, trips to museums, etc., for the gifted child, in order to spark his/her interest and stir the young imagination.

Those parents make it possible for the child to pursue training and development as he/she matures, often at great sacrifice.  (Lang Lang and his parents come to mind.)  Throughout the entire process of growth and exploration, a number of parental traits can be identified.  Though certain parents find certain attributes easy to display, necessary parenting skills often require deliberate strategizing and practice.  Among the characteristics of good parenting are love, patience, vision, calm, honesty, optimism, and encouragement in the face of fatigue and/or disappointment.  The parent helps the child to joy in discovery and growth, but never fosters complacency.

Do other traits of good parenting come to mind?  How faithfully do you — the creative artist — nourish your own gifted self, from the viewpoint of a wise and committed parent?  More to follow in future posts.

Snow Day

Wonderful words: snow and day.  I will enjoy this day, as I am reminded that one of my favorite things about life here in the Northeast is to be snowed in–able to stay warm, enjoy extra coffee, get caught up on a few tasks, watch a movie, maybe even practice (there’s a thought!), and begin to develop the blogging life. Wait a minute, doesn’t that sound like a lot for one day?

My style here will evolve, but I intend to create relatively short posts, in no particular order; each entry will have a particular focus — singing, teaching, learning, and/or life. I won’t try to be profound or profane, nor will I try to dazzle you with intellect.  I will attempt to be both honest and spontaneous; remember, I like to think out loud.  One final disclaimer: my writing here will not be in scholarly style, nor am I obligated to document everything.  I will freely mix documented truth, the comments/writing of others, my own experience and my opinions.  Remember that!

If you are new to reading WordPress, know that you should consult “Recent Posts” and “Archives” to browse.  Make an entry in the “Search” box and you will see a post that contains that term, though it won’t be highlighted.  Moving on…

First Entry

Here goes…jumping on another bandwagon.  I will begin posting here with some regularity in the next week or so, by the end of January.  My hope is that this blog will be a provocative and thoughtful resource for friends, family and students.  I will expound on various topics — mostly to do with singing and teaching, probably.  Visit again in a few days.