I created this blog to provide singers with support and resources for vocal technique, artistry and career development. Over the past several months I’ve been enjoying some wonderful opportunities to carry out this mission in the broader vocal community – online, in print, and in person. It’s consumed a great deal of my time, so now that I am ready to resume blogging I thought I’d start by catching you up on what I have been doing lately.
Carnegie Hall Musical Exchange: The Singer’s Audition Handbook
I lead the Voice Studio Group on Carnegie Hall’s interactive educational web site, Musical Exchange, and we recently launched an extended online audition preparation workshop that should prove valuable to all voice students and aspiring professionals. This workshop has been many months in the planning, and if you’ll have a look at the project home page you’ll understand why I’ve been busy lately!
The Singer’s Audition Handbook is a sequence of discussions and interactive projects that will unfold in connection with the series of master classes that Joyce DiDonato will present during her Carnegie Hall Perspectives residency in the 2014 – 2015 season, with a view to improving the application experience. The workshop will give potential applicants the opportunity to work through all the steps of the audition process with professional guidance, ask questions, and receive feedback on their materials before they are even submitted into consideration. The aim is to turn the audition process into a learning opportunity by providing resources to support singers as they evaluate and apply for educational and performance opportunities.
Topics will include choosing appropriate opportunities, creating a timeline for the application process, selecting audition repertoire, and preparing head shots, demos, bios and other materials. Singers will be encouraged to participate in discussions and share the audition materials they’re developing in order to receive feedback and advice.
The discussion I posted on Master Classes last week exemplifies the kind of robust information I would like to see made available on all educational and performance programs. It highlights The Song Continues, Marilyn Horne’s annual festival of art song recitals and master classes. Five singers who participated in the festival last January spoke with me about their experiences and shared excerpts from the demos they submitted with their applications; you can also view their sessions in the master classes. The more information you have about a program like this, the easier it is to decide whether it’s right for you and to put together a strong application.
I invite you all to register for a free Musical Exchange membership and take part in the project. The more singers who are willing to share their experiences with one another, the more everyone benefits.
Be a Better Instrument: A Singer’s Fitness Regimen
Sports science offers outstanding tools to improve alignment, breathing, stamina and kinesthetic awareness, all which are crucial for singers and impossible to develop effectively in the voice studio. Last summer I re-certified as a personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and I now offer fitness workshops as well as one-on-one fitness assessments and program design. I have always been passionate about what fitness can do for singers, and it is exciting to be sharing these techniques with a community that stands to benefit so greatly from them.
I presented my workshop at the Voice Foundation Symposium in Philadelphia last month for an audience of voice teachers, singers, and speech language pathologists; later this month I will also present the workshop at the Performing Arts Medical Association Symposium in Snowmass, Colorado. I’m eager to share this material with voice departments at colleges, conservatories and young artist programs, so please be in touch if you’re affiliated with a program that is ready to integrate fitness into the curriculum and I’ll provide further details.
The one-on-one training I offer comprises four sessions: one session to perform a robust assessment and create a customized program design, and three to teach you how to do the program with excellent form so that you can continue to perform it on your own. If after our last session you decide you’d prefer to continue working with a trainer, I’ll refer you to a highly qualified colleague who understands the specific needs of singers.
Often a singer with sensational talent, musicianship and passion finds their technique unnecessarily limited by less-than-optimal alignment, oxygen consumption, or other issues that are easily addressed with a targeted fitness regimen. Everything feels more effortless when you’re in great shape, so come see me for an assessment and find out how a customized exercise program can optimize your instrument.
Classical Singer Magazine: Musings on Mechanics
My new monthly column for Classical Singer magazine, Musings on Mechanics, launched in December 2013. The column addresses topics in vocal anatomy and technique in practical, accessible terms and offers fitness strategies to get your body into optimal shape for singing. Classical Singer content is available only by subscription, so follow this link to take advantage of the discounts they are extending to my readers - good deals on annual print and web subscriptions, and $1.99 gives you access to the current web issue and archives for a month.
Here’s an index of my columns to date:
I’m very proud of the content I have published with Classical Singer. Check in each month to keep current with Musings on Mechanics.
All three of these projects are ongoing, but I've built enough momentum with each of them now that I can look forward to resuming regular posts on this site as well.
Thanks for stopping by - I hope you'll give some serious thought to joining Musical Exchange, picking up a Classical Singer subscription, joining me at the gym, and, especially, coming to see me for a voice lesson!
If you’ve been hard at work on your technique but are not getting the results you desire, the solution may await you at the gym rather than in the studio. Come to my workshop, Be a Better Instrument: A Singer’s Fitness Regimen, Monday, March 24th from 7:00 to 9:00 pm at the National Opera Center and learn how to optimize your alignment, breathing and stamina for singing.
Great art will always be mysterious, but great vocal technique shouldn’t be. With patience, dedication and good instruction, voice students should be able to master the biomechanics of singing.
However, in the studios of even the most celebrated voice teachers, some students progress by great leaps while others do not. Singers with tremendous talent, intelligence, creativity and commitment sometimes fail to fulfill their potential.
This makes success in vocal technique seem mysterious: given tremendous talent and superb instruction, why do some singers get it while others don’t?
It’s due in part to the fact that there are some components of singing technique that cannot be effectively addressed or even assessed in the voice studio.
Postural distortions limit laryngeal mobility. Your level of cardiorespiratory fitness plays a major role in determining how long you can sustain a phrase. These issues can be detected with a fitness assessment but are likely to go unnoticed in the studio.
When your range, resonance, breathing and/or articulation are compromised by your posture, no amount of expert instruction and focused practice will perfect your skills in these areas. You’ll improve up to a point, but you’ll fall short of your potential because you have limited access to your own instrument. The same goes for your breathing – when alignment problems prohibit full expansion of your ribs and your oxygen consumption needs improvement, hours of vocal exercises will never get you where you want to be.
It’s not your teacher’s fault. They’re giving you the benefit of expertise that has yielded success for many singers over the years.
It’s not your fault – you’ve been diligently applying their instructions and advice.
Your instrument may just need some simple adjustments in order to be able to carry out those instructions.
You’re doing everything you can to make sure your technique is state-of-the-art. Join me on March 24th to make sure the instrument you’re playing is, too.
Through practice, we can develop what may be one of the two or three most fundamental skills that any human being can acquire, which I call Skill at Feeling. It’s a skill that they not only did not teach you in school, they never talked about it. But once feeling, be it emotional in origin, physiological in origin, or purely physical and mechanical - once feeling can be made tangible in terms of body sensation, then we have at least the potential of being able to experience feeling completely.
– Shinzen Young, The Science of Enlightenment
If you read my blog, you love singing. But how do you actually feel about performing? About the sound of your voice? Your artistry and accomplishments? Your overall technical facility?
In a previous post I stated that opera singers “must develop the personal depth and vulnerability to channel the extremes of human emotion through their voices at will.” This is arguably the most significant of the many skills a singer needs. The most satisfying and effective performances occur when you are deeply emotionally invested. But how do you develop this skill?
When singers discuss the role their feelings play in opera and song, it is usually in the service of dramatic interpretation – getting to the bottom of characters' motivations for behaving as they do and how to best imbue their utterances with the appropriate emotional quality. If a director or coach employs Method Acting or similar techniques, they may ask you to reference your own past feelings and experiences and allow them to inform the dramatic situation. But tapping your personal relationship history in order to bring life to the way Donna Elvira behaves around Don Giovanni is not what I mean by “skill at feeling”.
By “skill at feeling,” I’m referring to the ability to experience, express, and regulate the flow of your feelings in real-time.
Fully experiencing your feelings requires keen self-awareness and radical self-acceptance.
Expressing feelings clearly to others requires good communication skills, confidence, and an absence of conflict about your feelings and your decision to express them.
Regulating the flow of your feelings means balancing the need to acknowledge, tolerate and process feelings as they arise with the ability to choose whether and how to express them.
I'm not suggesting this is easy (or even possible) to fully master. However, it is possible to improve your skill at feeling, and doing so will enhance not only your vocal artistry but also all your life experiences.
What are feelings? If you ask a psychologist, an artist and a neurobiologist, you’ll get quite a range of responses, but it’s the neurobiologist’s perspective that is the most useful for working with feelings: Feelings are essentially body sensations.
Equating feelings with body sensations makes it possible to observe and experience their ebb and flow to a high degree of specificity. You can note the location, intensity, and quality of sensation, leading to greater self-awareness. You can also note your reaction to them – whether you greet these sensations with equanimity, resist them, or judge them.
Cultivating equanimity with your feelings rather than judging them or meeting them with resistance is essential for communicating feelings effectively. Otherwise you end up conveying them with an extra charge, giving mixed signals, or seeming less than fully honest.
Cultivating equanimity with your feelings doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily communicate them calmly. Honest communication of excitement or anger demands an appropriate level of energy. But if you judge yourself for being angry or are uncomfortable with a high level of excitement, you’ll need to push past some resistance in order to express yourself. The added charge will distort your message and you may end up coming off as scary or confusing – after all, the person you’re talking to is having feelings/body sensations of their own in response to what you’re communicating.
Healthy regulation of feelings also requires self-awareness and equanimity. Feelings are one thing; deciding whether, when and how to express them is something else. People with poor skill at feeling may react to intolerable body sensations with spontaneous outbursts or actions they later regret; alternately, they may shut down their feelings or avoid situations that would excite them in order to prevent such outbursts or actions, unnecessarily depriving themselves of a rich emotional life and meaningful experiences. For example, feelings of attraction are intensely pleasant and expansive, but if experiencing these sensations necessitates acting on them and creating undesirable consequences, the only way to prevent that outcome is by shutting down your feelings or avoiding situations where they would likely arise. Conversely, if you are skillful at regulating your feelings, you can enjoy these pleasant sensations and engage in meaningful relationships with the people who inspire them without completely screwing up your life.
Skill at feeling has a number of specific applications for your singing technique and career, the most obvious being that access to a wide range and depth of feelings expands your expressive palate. But let’s return to the questions that I posed at the head of this column:
How do you feel about performing?
The sound of your voice?
Your artistry and accomplishments?
Your overall technical facility?
What body sensations arise for you as you consider these questions?
Access to a wide range and depth of feelings may expand your expressive palate, but you also need enough skill to be able to sense and contend with feelings that arise in relation to your voice, your technique and your career.
If you want to make swift progress in technique and artistry, you must contend skillfully with the emotions that inevitably arise in response to advice and criticism from teachers, coaches, and your experiences in the practice room. When you’re told that your intonation is a bit off, it’s likely to produce some interesting body sensations. You need to be able to greet these sensations with equanimity in order to remain focused on improving your intonation. If instead you freak out, you not only miss an opportunity to improve your technique but you come to associate intolerable negative emotions with the problem at hand.
Singers regularly encounter rejection and criticism from opera companies, critics, and – potentially most challenging – the voices inside their own heads. If you handle it by growing a thick skin, that emotional callous will end up muffling your artistry as well. Your success and perseverance depend on your ability to remain simultaneously vulnerable and strong in the face of criticism. That's no small achievement, and it may be that many gifted artists give up solely because they lack this ability.
Performance anxiety can arise for a number of reasons, but whatever its source it remains a feeling – a flavor of body sensation. Most things are beyond your control in performance situations, so it’s vital that you cultivate equanimity with the feelings that arise when things don’t go according to plan. Any successful strategy for dealing with performance anxiety has at its core a system for developing skill at feeling.
How do you develop skill at feeling?
By paying attention.
Notice how your feelings manifest as body sensations. Try to welcome them rather than resisting them, judging them, or judging yourself for having them. Watch them arising and passing. Notice (and mistrust) the thoughts that form in your mind in response to your body sensations and realize that these thoughts are distinct from the sensations. Notice your impulses to speak or take action in response to these sensations, understanding that you have a choice whether to act on these impulses. Notice whether you allow the sensations to flow freely or attempt to shut them down.
Of course, paying attention is a skill unto itself. A meditation practice can improve your attention and feeling skills at the same time if you choose emotionally charged body sensations as your object of meditation. Shinzen Young's lecture series The Science of Enlightenment is an outstanding introduction to meditation theory and technique, and his ideas on how to develop skill at feeling are the foundation for my own.
Throughout the day, our feelings flow uninterrupted and largely unexamined. When we do examine our feelings it is often a conceptual exercise – we rationalize, interpret, or argue with them. But feelings are there to be experienced, not conceptualized.
Learning to experience your feelings fully and to greet them with radical acceptance is one of the most valuable things you can possibly do for yourself, your singing and your audience. Become capable of channeling the extremes of human emotion through your voice at will, and you will stir your listeners to greater depths of feeling as well.
Rather than being a slave to your emotions, you can use them to create masterpieces, both in the opera house and in your life.
If you want to be able to channel the flow of your feelings into your singing, you need a technique designed to serve this process. Email me at clf1-at-jhu-dot-edu or schedule a lesson on my Appointment Quest site to discover how my methods can serve your artistry.
When singers perform, we evaluate their voices based on what pleases and moves us: a beautiful sound, consistent production, musicianship, virtuosity, and emotional honesty.
Naturally, these are also chief among the goals that singers pursue in their vocal studies.
Progress toward any significant goal in fitness or in singing usually entails a long-term endeavor to create new habits, balance existing skill sets, and build strength, coordination and flexibility. It is difficult to make significant improvements in one aspect of physiology or coordination without considering the big picture. Any specific area of concern is likely to be symptomatic of a global issue, and any change to one part of a system then needs to be carefully reintegrated with the whole.
There is therefore a vital distinction between evaluating your actual singing – the beauty of your sound, consistency of your vocal production, etc. – and assessing the functionality of the individual components of your technique and the skill with which you are able to integrate them into a coordinated process. While it’s important to have clear goals, the path to achieving them must be based on a comprehensive assessment of both your physiology and your current skill set in order to evaluate strengths, weaknesses and imbalances in all areas.
My previous post described the components of physical fitness that personal trainers evaluate. Here are the categories of vocal technique I address in an initial consultation:
Vocal Fold Response
Pitch Definition and Intonation
Articulation and Vowel Definition
In comparison with fitness assessments, it is more challenging to gather objective data in the voice studio. You can’t really cheat on fitness assessments. If I ask you to do an overhead squat to assess your alignment, there’s nothing you can do to make your overhead squat look “better” other than performing an excellent overhead squat. By contrast, there are many ways to manipulate your voice to compensate for flaws and make things sound “better”. I therefore use a series of highly diagnostic exercises to perform vocal assessments. Many of them isolate specific components of singing; when performed correctly they do not result in full-on singing. This makes it easier for you to engage fully in the assessment rather than focus on producing a good sound.
The information gathered from this initial assessment enables me to recommend which skills a student should prioritize in their practice sessions and create a long-term strategy to help them realize their goals. I can ensure their balanced technical development while helping them to eliminate effortful compensations.
My recent re-immersion in fitness training has convinced me that specific, long-term plans based on robust assessments are just as vital for vocal technique as they are for fitness. In offering an initial consultation that generates a written evaluation of a singer’s baseline abilities and challenges, I’m able to provide students with a clear picture of where they are in relation to where they want to go while also providing myself with the data I’ll need to map out the best course for getting them there.
Ready to optimize your vocal technique? Schedule a session on my Appointment Quest site for a comprehensive assessment of your skills and abilities and a game plan for realizing your goals.
The December 2013 issue of Women’s Health Magazine offers the headlines “3 Tricks to Look Slimmer ASAP” and “The 5-Minute Workout You NEED to Try”. Shape Magazine features “The Secret to Faster Fat Loss” and “The Fastest Way to Lose 10 Pounds”.
The editors at these magazines know that fitness and weight-loss goals are long-term projects requiring planning, commitment and perseverance. Click on “The Fastest Way to Lose 10 Pounds” and in the second paragraph you’ll be reminded that “Losing weight is a 24-hour-a-day lifestyle that consists of proper sleep, nutrition, hydration, and fitness.” Click on “The 5-Minute Workout,” and you’ll see that the author actually advocates repeating that 5-minute workout three to five times, resulting in something approaching a 25-minute workout. So why the misleading headlines?
Those headlines get more people to buy their magazines and click on their links.
Everyone’s a sucker for the promise of a quick fix.
The fitness manager at one of the gyms where I used to train admonished us to “Give your clients what they need, but package it in what they want.” On the face of it, this isn’t bad advice at all. Educating clients about what they really need is a big part of a trainer’s job, but understanding and caring about what they say they want is also very important. That said, what my manager really meant was that we should play along with the unrealistic pipe dreams clients often express long enough to make them utterly dependent on us.
In other words, promise them quick fixes.
I left that gym after less than a month.
Promising quick fixes is an effective sales strategy, especially considering how vulnerable, hopeful and uneducated most new gym members are. If, in addition to being a good salesman, the trainer is a skilled instructor and motivator, dangling the carrot of the quick fix can result in a lifelong commitment to fitness. More frequently, however, it leads to high-volume sales but poor client retention.
This is bad for everyone but the “SalesTrainers™”, who will replace the lost clients by promising quick fixes to new ones. It’s bad for their more scrupulous colleagues, who find it hard to compete with the promise of a quick fix. It’s bad for their frustrated former clients, who took a leap of faith but may now be discouraged enough to give up on exercise altogether. It’s bad for the industry when they rejoin the ranks of the 81% who fail to engage regularly in “high levels of physical activity”.
It is bad for all of us because it perpetuates the idea that the odds of permanently improving fitness or maintaining weight loss are very slim.
Sustainable fitness gains and weight loss may seem elusive and mysterious, and the statistics would seem to bear that out. To ethical fitness professionals, however, it’s essentially a matter of science. Barring any unusual health limitations, if you show up, put in the time on a regular basis, and stick to a reasonable and balanced caloric intake, we can help you get from where you are to where you want to be. We’ll also give you an honest and realistic idea of how long it will take.
We begin with a series of assessments to determine your current level of fitness. These assessments gather objective data about the state and functionality of your body. This data includes:
We then use the results of these assessments to design a program to meet your goals. At regular intervals, we perform reassessments to track your progress and make adjustments to your program in accordance with your increasing skills and strength.
Gathering and tracking this data is crucial for meeting fitness and weight goals. This is what makes it possible for your trainer to translate “what you want” into “what you need”. You may want to lose 20 pounds, slim down to a 30” waist, or bench press your own weight, but the path to these goals will differ for each individual depending on the results of an integrated fitness assessment. Some people may need to emphasize neuromuscular efficiency and joint stabilization in order to become capable of engaging in a level of exercise that will allow them to achieve their goals. Others will need to focus more on improving body composition or cardiorespiratory function.
Without this data and a program informed by it, it will be hit-or-miss whether you actually achieve your goals. It may seem for a while like you’re making progress towards them, but in time you may find yourself on an endless plateau or halted by strain or injury. It will also take a lot longer, making you that much more likely to get frustrated and give up.
There are a number of factors that make it challenging to adopt lifestyle changes leading to long-term sustainable fitness gains and weight loss. In addition to a pervasive cultural longing for quick fixes, many people have to overcome body-image or other psychological issues, overhaul lifelong eating habits, and/or dispel assumptions about their own potential.
When you realize that these factors are all incredibly personal, it becomes clear how vital objective criteria is to your success. If you put your trust in the objective data and the science behind physical transformation, it will help you override doubts and fears that can undermine your perseverance. Seeing your fitness statistics improve provides much-needed assurance that you will, in time, achieve your goals.
While what you bring to your singing is deeply personal, your instrument is a physical body and your vocal technique comprises movements that can be distilled down to specific physical actions. We therefore owe it to ourselves to inquire whether there might be useful assessments yielding objective criteria similar to the technologies available to fitness trainers, so that we can quantify crucial skill sets of individual singers, effectively measure their current strengths and weaknesses, and track improvements in their technique.
In my next post, I’ll share my strategies for implementing such assessments in my voice studio.
Have you seen the Venus de Milo? She is very expressive, and she has no arms.
- Daniel Helfgot, director & author
Musical Exchange is Carnegie Hall's educational social media site. Our mission is to provide musical resources to young musicians aged 13 to 25 worldwide. If that's you, please sign up and participate! Registration is free, and you'll find lots of like-minded peers around the site. If not, please help me get the word out and encourage the young singers and instrumentalists in your life to join.
Classical Singer magazine has invited me to contribute a regular monthly column on fitness, beginning with the December 2013 issue. "Musings on Mechanics" will offer strategies for the care, maintenance and optimal functioning of your instruments. CS is kindly extending my readers a discounted subscription via this link, so please subscribe now as this content will be available solely through the magazine.
My first installment, "Get Ready for Your Close-Up," discusses how to deal with the increasing pressure singers feel to attend to their physical appearance. My student Daniel Foltz-Morrison is pursuing an interdisciplinary MA in Vocal Performance and Exercise Sports Science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, so while I was putting this column together I asked him whether his research had turned up any material I'd find useful.
Unfortunately, there isn't much available on the topic. Daniel referred me to a 1995 piece from Nutrition Today titled "Professional Singers with Obesity or Eating-Related Problems: The Diva Syndrome," by Angela Slover and Johanna T. Dwyer. By then I'd already handed in my draft to Classical Singer, so I thought I'd share my reactions to it here.
Slover and Dwyer describe common "maladaptive eating behaviors and lifestyle characteristics that are prevalent among professional singers, predisposing them to obesity," including pre- and post-performance eating habits, erratic schedules, and social obligations where an abundance of rich food and drink is on offer.
I for one would not go so far as to say that a singer's lifestyle predisposes them to obesity or that our community's collective eating habits constitute a syndrome! However, while Slover and Dwyer's article lacks academic rigor, it raises some important issues. A singing career does create formidable obstacles for establishing and maintaining a healthy diet.
In preparation for performances you have to fuel your body like an athlete, but you also have to make sure not to eat so close to a performance that a full stomach interferes with your breathing or causes reflux. By the time the show is over and you're done greeting your fans and have taken off your costume and makeup, many hours have passed since your last meal. You're famished and will likely join your colleagues for a heavy meal, then head to bed shortly afterwards. Performance days thus often involve two large meals with a period of gnawing hunger in between, behavior that can lead to weight gain. While research has yet to yield conclusive date, studies suggest that the later you eat, the more difficult it is to regulate your weight. And while experts still argue over whether it's better to eat many small meals or a few large meals throughout the day, common sense should tell you that the hungrier you are, the more likely you are to overeat.
Frequent travel and variable work schedules increase singers' dietary challenges. Upon arriving in an unfamiliar city for a month or two, it's going to take you a little while to figure out where to shop, whether it will be possible to prepare your own meals, and which local restaurants are healthy and affordable. Your nutritional needs and meal schedules on rehearsal days, performance days, and days off all have significant differences. If you still depend to some extent on non-musical employment for your survival, this further compunds the irregularity of day-to-day meal planning.
Regular, balanced nutrition is essential for the well-being and function of your instrument. It may not be easy to achieve, but with planning and vigilance you can develop eating habits that will advance your health and support your singing.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
Establish criteria for your pre-performance meals. Everyone's needs differ, and you must figure out what works best for your body so that you will perform with energy and without discomfort. Don't skimp on calories pre-performance – even if you're trying to lose weight, this is not the time to cut back.
Keep healthy snacks in your dressing room. You may have to clear this with the wardrobe staff, and it is important to choose things that will not damage your costume or mess up your makeup. But a few bites of an energy bar at intermission will not only fuel your performance but keep you from becoming famished by the end of the show.
Manage your post-performance hunger. A snack at intermission will help, and you may also wish to have a few more bites of that energy bar before heading out to celebrate with patrons or colleagues. Eat slowly and mindfully post-performance, and you'll be less likely to overdo it.
Exercise restraint at social functions. You'll confront an abundance of rich food at receptions, and it can be difficult to keep track of what you've consumed.
Research shopping, meal preparation, and healthy dining options prior to arriving in an unfamiliar city. That moment when your plane lands is the moment when you're most vulnerable to making expedient, regrettable choices.
Create distinct meal templates for performance, rehearsal, day job and leisure day schedules. There is no one plan that will suffice for them all. If you find yourself in a situation for which you have no plan, you will likely just wing it, and the results will not be ideal.
This is indeed a lot to contemplate and keep track of. You have the maintenance and performance needs of an athlete without the regularity of an athlete's schedule. The highly social nature of your career has you continually surrounded by lavish food and drink. And the fact that you are drawn to so sensual an art form suggests that you're probably deeply hedonistic. We all love to eat!
Sometimes just acknowledging that something is hard helps to make it easier. Your nutritional needs are specific to your career and lifestyle, and you're not supposed to just know how to eat on a given day. Be aware that if you've struggled with diet issues, there's a good reason: our needs are, in fact, surprisingly complex.
They are complex, but they are not pathological. Slover and Dwyer conclude their article with an ominous but unsupported admonition that "Singers must be educated early in their training that obesity is an occupational hazard of a professional singing career." I would instead encourage an early awareness of our unique dietary challenges and support for cultivating good eating habits while singers are still in the relatively structured environment of training programs. They'll be better poised to design strategies to augment these habits once it comes time to meet the demands of a career.
The David H. Koch Theater, NYCO's former home
New York City Opera recently ended a 70-year run after failing to raise adequate support from its donors and fan base. In July, BBC Hard Talk presenter Sarah Montague called opera "one of the least watched art forms in the world". Copywriter Marc Sherman still proudly showcases his Baltimore Opera ad campaign on his web site. It caps with an apologetic punchline: "Opera: It's better than you think. It has to be." The campaign won a Best in Show Addy Award but failed to breathe new life into the opera company, which folded a few seasons later.
Many of our major companies are barely keeping afloat these days, and we can't help but ask whether opera's relevance for today's audiences is on the decline.
In my opinion, opera is potentially more relevant than ever for today's audiences. My question is whether it's also too progressive. Opera may be widely perceived as a museum piece, the domain of the privileged and elderly, but in truth it's highly volatile stuff.
I love opera, but not just because I love singing. I am passionate about opera because it is the only musical genre that fully exploits the capabilities of the acoustic human voice.
Therein lies its relevance.
Opera singers must maximize their range, power, resonance, flexibility, spectrum of dynamics and vocal colors. They must cultivate the skill to project unamplified over an orchestra in a 3,500-seat hall. They must develop the personal depth and vulnerability to channel the extremes of human emotion through their voices at will, transmitting them to every individual member of the audience. The naked human voice sets listeners' auditory apparatuses in motion, creating a sympathetic vibratory connection that exhorts them to feel what the singer is feeling at that moment. It's an experience of visceral, as opposed to virtual, reality. It is a potentially ecstatic, cathartic experience of inestimable value.
The Koch Theater, viewed from the stage. The sheer skill, commitment and power to fill a room this size with your voice does not come easily.
Opera facilitates extraordinarily intimate and unifying experiences for performers and audience members. People may mock the over-the-top emotions and implausibly dramatic situations characteristic of operatic plots, but they're simply missing the point. Opera draws on the most heightened, complex human situations possible in order to expand the listener's capacity to feel.
So much in our world conspires to obscure genuine desires and feelings. We're bombarded with powerful messages about how we should look, what we should eat, what kinds of relationships we ought to have, and what careers to pursue. These messages don't come from sources that know what choices will be most fulfilling for us. They come from companies that want to sell us things, organizations with a philosophical agenda, and, often, well-intentioned people who want to protect us from venturing outside our comfort zones.
By contrast, the practice of singing puts us in touch with our desires and feelings and empowers us to express them. It takes us very far outside our comfort zones. To embrace a desire is to risk the possibility of its never being fulfilled. To feel deeply is to give up control. To give voice to all of this is to expose yourself to judgment and ridicule. Singing requires tremendous skill but it also requires self-awareness and courage equal to all of this. Fine singers are able to lure you outside your own comfort zone. They challenge you to give up control along with them, to feel deeply, and to long for heightened experiences. They invite you to consider what life would be like were your own voice so empowered.
This is why I suggest that opera may be too progressive for today's audiences. It's a fabulous ride if you're up for it, but it can be terribly disquieting if you aren't.
Those of you who are enamored of opera already know what I'm talking about. Most people, who have never experienced powerful live acoustic singing, have no idea what they are missing.
I'm occasionally asked to sing something in the midst of a social gathering or find myself performing for a class where the subject is something other than music. It's immediately startling and astonishing for my listeners, not because my voice is so remarkable but because they have never heard anything like it. Until you have experienced powerful live acoustic singing you can have no real appreciation for what the human voice can do or what it's like to be on the receiving end of such raw emotional transfer.
We can and should continue to offer productions of operatic masterpieces that are more relatable for modern audiences. These stories express timeless themes that are usually well-suited to updated treatment. But nothing can make opera more relevant than it always has been.
Opera's true relevance lies in the inherently transformative power of the acoustic human voice - the power to communicate universal emotions and to elicit empathy, catharsis, and a deeper flow of feeling in all who know how to listen. If people truly realized what they were missing, opera would not lack for support and appreciation.
This journey into strength is not just about sculpting the body but how we can use the pathway of our bodies as a way to mine the strength in ourselves. For when external and internal strength are blended and balanced, the wires connect, the whole person wakes up and that union of flesh and spirit is magnificent, radiant, a cause to rejoice!
- Karen Andes, A Woman's Book of Strength
I recently recertified as a personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Sports science offers outstanding tools that can help anyone improve alignment, breathing and kinesthetic awareness. I'm always seeking new ways to apply them, in and out of the voice studio.
It's crucial that singers have access to these tools. Often a singer with sensational talent, musicianship and passion finds their technique unnecessarily limited by less-than-optimal alignment, oxygen consumption, or other issues that are easily addressed with a targeted fitness program. Adding a fitness component to voice major curricula and Young Artist Programs could have a tremendous impact.
Having refreshed and updated my training chops, I'm getting to work on developing workshops and group fitness classes for singers. I was enthusiastically shaping my materials into an engaging presentation when I asked myself the question, "Wouldn't it have been great if we'd had resources like this when I was an undergrad?"
And I had to answer: Honestly, I don't know.
It would have been great for those singers who were ready to embrace the idea of fitness, but I might not have been among them.
Throughout my adolescence I was bullied over my apparent lack of athletic aptitude. I recall how humiliating it was in middle school to have to design and perform a gymnastics floor routine in front of my peers when I could barely execute a decent somersault, to be picked last for the basketball team, and to be eliminated in the first round of track and field meets. I spent high school fabricating pretexts to get out of Phys Ed class and sneak back to the band room to practice clarinet for an hour.
It wasn't until my late 20s that I became interested in exercise. While browsing in a bookstore (remember when that was a thing you could do?) I came across A Woman's Book of Strength, by Karen Andes. She expressed such passion for fitness and compassion for women who long for physical strength but have no idea where to begin, and she made it sound fun and empowering. I signed up for a gym membership, discovered that I really enjoyed strength training, and have worked out consistently ever since.
I engaged fitness when I was ready, on my own terms. I truly don't know how I would have responded had someone told me that I ought to exercise to support my singing technique, no matter how compelling their reasons. Perhaps I would have found out how much I'd enjoy it a few years earlier than I did, but after everything I endured as a child it might instead have turned me off singing altogether.
Many singers, like me, grow up with a poor relationship with fitness, and nearly everyone grapples with body-image issues to a greater or lesser extent. Model Cameron Russell addresses this in her terrific TED talk:
We're all aware of the growing role that physical appearance plays in casting decisions. This has made our community more image-conscious and tempts us to prioritize appearance over the integrity of our instruments. For singers who already have a fraught relationship with fitness and/or body-image issues, this makes it even more emotionally difficult to figure out how or whether to exercise.
My suggestion is to strive for some detachment from your past experiences, the expectations of the opera world, and everything people have been telling you to do and consider whether you can engage fitness on your own terms.
As singing is of great importance to you, the best way to approach this may be to consider fitness as an extension of what you do in the practice room. You already regularly do exercises to develop range, flexibility, articulation, etc. Now you're going to add some exercises to develop alignment, better breathing, and stamina. Everyone prefers some vocal exercises over others, but when you're convinced that you're engaging in something that will improve your voice it makes the less entertaining ones tolerable. If you place physical exercises in the same category as your vocal exercises, you'll be more motivated to do them and any remaining negative associations you have with regard to fitness will begin to weaken.
Another vital correlation between fitness and your singing practice that deserves your attention is the way both of these disciplines cultivate a strong mind/body connection. The principles underlying the Karen Andes quote at the head of this post apply just as well to singing - one could also say that "the journey into singing technique is not just about making beautiful sounds but how we can use the pathway of our voices as a way to mine the beauty in ourselves." The more insight you gain about yourself and the world, the more impactful your singing becomes; the process of learning to sing is also a rich catalyst for personal insight and growth. Testing and transcending your physical limits at the gym is a fascinating process that can put you in touch with a capacity for strength, energy, and sensation that you never knew you had. It also brings old anxieties and insecurities to the surface. But singing does that too, and it's far better to get these demons out in the open where you can process them than allow them to fester in your unconscious mind.
I want you to share my enthusiasm for fitness. I want you all to discover the many far-reaching ways that it can ease and enhance the way your voice works and speed up your technical progress. I want you to experience the confidence and empowerment that becoming fit confers.
This is why I also wanted to share with you the fact that I once had an intensely painful relationship to exercise. Your singing practice will benefit immensely from a targeted fitness regimen, but you, like me, also need to come to it on your own terms if it's going to stick.