Merry Music Monday

I’ve obviously fallen off the Festive Friday wagon, so how about a double-sized Merry Music Monday to make up for it? These recommendations are both from this year and both country music, which I love.

Kacey Musgraves is an award winning, lyric spitting, old souled, rebellion-of-nice phenomenon in today’s country scene. She writes cleverly like Dolly, styles her hair like Loretta, and defies convention like Wynonna. Her voice is sweet and her appeal endless. I love the arrangements of old favorites on this album, but the new songs like A Willie Nice Christmas, (featuring the legend himself), are equally charming. A Very Kacey Christmas is a must-listen, and is bound to become a favorite.

From its first rollicking electric guitar licks, one can hear that To Celebrate Christmas is a much wilder party than my latter recommended album. After a few measures, Jennifer Nettles’ one-of-a-kind voice blasts onto the musical scene, and we’re in an Elvis-style rock and roller. That’s not to say Nettles can’t be subtle or gentle with her powerful pipes. She sails up and down the scale on all the tracks, using some lovely soulful crooning to match Andra Day on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Many of my singer friends play the LDB game–avoiding hearing The Little Drummer Boy for as long as possible during the holidays. I don’t share their distaste for the song, and Nettles’ anthemic country-pop version—a duet with Idina Menzel—leaves me frozen with delight. (Not sorry for that one!) This is a festive and fun album from a talented singer.

 

Festive Friday – Double Edition

kylie_minogue_-_kylie_christmasHoliday music recommendations are back, and after missing a week, here’s a double edition. First up is one of my favorite singers in a slick, cohesive gem of an album released last year: Kylie Christmas. The Aussie pop goddess blends bouncy arrangements with razor-sharp delivery. My favorites are Winter Wonderland, Every Day is Christmas, and a lo
vely, surprising duet with James Corden (yes, the Carpool Karaoke host)—Only You.


 

500x500My second recommendation for this week is an oldie, but a goodie. Just last week, the controversial and incomparable Kathleen Battle made a well-received return to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, from which she was fired more than two decades ago for bad behavior. In 1996, Battle and classical guitar master Christopher Parkening released a collaborative Christmas album entitled Angels’ Glory. Every arrangement is simple and beautiful, there are traditional carols from the West Indies, Poland, Wales, and the American South, and the opening track is a surprisingly lovely rendition of Mary Did You Know—a Christian country tune far from Battle’s usual milieu. After twenty years, this album and Kathleen Battle’s artistry are worth rediscovering.

Festive Fridays Begin!

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It’s a few days after Halloween, which means high time to crank up the Christmas music on repeat! Many of you do not share my early and relentless enthusiasm for this genre, so please feel free to tune me out over the next eight weeks as I post recommendations on Festive Fridays. I hope many of you enjoy these posts and discover some new tunes for your holiday playlists.

The inimitable King’s Singers’ new album is my kickoff recommendation this year. They previously released one or two ‘songbook’-themed albums that are plummy, charmingly stiff, musically impeccable, and highly enjoyable. Christmas Songbook manages to be both beautiful and energetic, while preserving the popular nature of its predecessors. I particularly like their arrangements of Frosty the Snowman (with details from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer!), In the Bleak Midwinter (gorgeous), and Ding Dong Merrily on High (irrepressible). The whole album is great–give it a listen.

Exercise Daily

Singing is exercise. The body is the instrument. A strong and flexible body can support a strong and flexible voice. Yes, sure, of course…

IMG_1750There was a time in the not too distant past when most of the vocal instruction I gave and received was about the workings of my ‘mechanism,’ which meant the larynx, pharynx, and articulators, and maybe the lungs, diaphragm, and abs (although instruction about these was unclear at best and at worst just plain wrong). Thankfully, modern voice science and vocal pedagogy has quickly embraced the idea of an holistic singer–one whose entire body, mind, and spirit are considered to be part of the ‘support’ for a voice. We are better for this perspective, and its time has come to stay.

That said, with the difficulty of the music we teach, the complexity of the mechanism above the clavicle, the murky mystery (still!) of the mechanism below the clavicle, and all the pressures of life that encroach upon a singer’s practice and performance, I think singers continue to have a hard time remember the sheer physicality of body-based singing. Quite simply, if you fully energize your body and take a breath from that most basic energetic level, the singing will be much better than if you hadn’t. There’s less need to sweat the small stuff, because the cornerstone of technique and breath is turning on that energetic ‘yes’ before beginning phonation.

So, we need to practice having that energy regularly, and in lots of situations. It is imperative that singers rehearse standing. (requires more energy, often avoided, don’t care!) If they don’t stand, they have to sit well (back away from the chair, spine straight, chest open, I know it’s hard!) Singers need to pursue some sort of physical discipline (exercise) that approximates the energy required to sing. Mental preparation is not enough–the body has to learn the pathways to support, and muscle memory has to develop. It can’t be crammed either–this type of muscle memory develops over sustained practice.

To that end, we need to exercise our bodies and voices regularly. If you don’t have a home practice, start one. Here are two sets of exercises I use and teach. The first comes almost directly from the late, great Barbara Kierig, who taught me in grad school and beyond. She was a master technician and absolutely rock solid on the idea of exercises as essential practice. The second set are simple exercises I have added to Barbara’s in my studio rotation. All of them work the voice in a certain way and prepare a certain energy that mirrors situations that arise in our music. The subconscious will recognize the situation from daily practice, and the appropriate muscle memory will kick in.

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High Voice
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Low Voice

 

Warmups 2 – High
Warmups 2 – Low

 

 

 

 

When I warm up the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for example, we always start with some sort of postural or physical cue to energize. This is like booting the system before turning to the breath exercises I posted about last week, and then finally adding phonation to the mix. You can use foot stomping, knee bouncing, finger/toe wiggling, shoulder/head rolling, eye blinking, or any other action that requires more energy than just standing upright. Once we’ve done many of these things, the girls are in what I call Singer’s Tadasana–the basic template yoga pose for all standing postures–and have ‘turned on’ for singing. It’s especially important to warm up a group in this way, but even for individual lessons it works wonders.

San Francisco Girls Chorus School, Valerie Sainte-Agathe, Joshua Roman

Shameless plug: the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Chorus School have a wonderful concert at 4pm on Sunday at Herbst Theater. They’re performing canons from many eras with TED fellow, composer, and cello player extraordinary, Joshua Roman. Click the image for more info and tickets. You’ll hear beautiful singing and (hopefully!) see energized physicality from all the performers.

Sing Sensationally

 My teacher during my masters and doctoral study doggedly guided me toward singing by feel rather than sound. Her reasoning was that vibrations from the vocal folds travel through the bones of the head and muddle the ears’ ability to hear the true voice as it exists in the outside world. The solution is to pay attention to the sensations in the body and listen to feedback from a teacher or trusted advisor about what is ‘right,’ memorizing the connection between good feedback and the feeling of the actions that produced it. While initially difficult, this process is much more effective than listening.

Humans are visual creatures. As the article linked describes, we often hear what we see, overwhelmed by the strong pull of our visual inclination. This illustrates the power one sense has to confuse or override another (as with singing by sound as opposed to feeling). We can turn this difficulty into a tool by using the pull of the visual sense to guide breath energy, phrasing, and vowel placement. I tell my students that every note or phrase must head forward and and above the horizon. This visual image, especially when enhanced by a paper or image placed in the correct spot on the wall in front of the singer, can help recruit the muscles of support, the correct tongue position, and the imagination required to sustain a phrase vibrantly in tune throughout its duration.

Here are some excercises I use to practice singing by feel:

Dirga Pranayama (Three-Part Breath)


Breath Translation


OM for Singing Resonance

Use the bija mantras—syllables associated with the 7 major chakras—to build subtle awareness of the various parts of the body.

Alternatively, you can focus on low-medium-high areas of vibration/resonance. I use /a/, /u/, and /m/ as they (along with silence) are the sounds that make up the universal OM. When chanted, they should produce vibrations in the chest, mouth, and head/brow, respectively. I find it helps students to know how to ‘feel’ those three areas of resonance, and then I can begin to link them with pitch. This is especially useful for students who have trouble matching pitch or accessing all parts of their range.

Sing Has Sprung

Yes I know—spring sprang a couple days ago and I’m late. Still, I’ll capitalize on the idea of renewal and the energy I feel these rainy days of longer light. It’s time to change, to grow, to reach for new things; I’ll be trying to blog more often, with a focus on practical singing solutions from my studio. I won’t be sharing anything esoteric or overly scientific—these SingAsana Solutions will be tools I’ve found helpful or discoveries my students and I have made that may help other singers and teachers.

Topics will include:
• alignment/posture
• breathing/support
• vowels
• resonance
• score study
• repertoire ins and outs
• singing in a chorus
• business of singing
• your requests!

Thanks to my students for inspiring these posts, and to all of you for reading. Namaste.

NATS Success!

IMG_0228IMG_0233The NATS Student Auditions: SFBAC were held yesterday at Cal State University East Bay in Hayward. 250 singers; 100 judges/teachers, pianists, and volunteers; and all their families, friends, and supporters converged on the music building to sing in Youth, Lower & Upper High School, Lower & Upper & Advanced College, Avocational, and Late Bloomer divisions of Classical, Musical Theater, and CCM (Contemporary Commercial Music) styles.
IMG_0232IMG_0231Our studio was well represented by sixteen talented singers who worked very hard to meet the rigorous repertoire requirements and organization required to successfully compete. In addition to the following winners, who will receive a certificate of achievement and monetary prize, all the participants receive written comments from three voice teacher judges.
IMG_0235IMG_0230The comments are incredibly helpful in reinforcing or supplementing what I teach, and most singers find them the best part of the auditions. Congratulations to all singers!


 

Lower High School Classical

2nd Place – Viola Yasuda
3rd Place – Hannah Liu

Upper High School Classical
3rd Place – Sarah Ancheta

Lower College Classical
Honorable Mention – Markayla Stroubakis

Advanced College Classical
2nd Place – Juan Carlos Zepeda

Lower High School Musical Theater
2nd Place – Ariane Evans
Honorable Mention – Margaret Martin

Participants:
Katrina Cortado
Lucy Downes
Charlotte EnsleyKathleen Isaza
Georgia Jones
Cecilia Kakehashi
Allegra Kelly
Mirabelle Moore
Ella Nelson

‘Musician’ is a totally legitimate job title, damnit.

Click here to read Work of Art | Blue Magazine | Drake University

I was feeling spicy the day my alma mater’s magazine interviewed me–glad the writer managed to salvage some inspiration amongst my frustration about justifying the arts. It’s a good article, but I still disagree with the basic premise of asking artists to defend art. We certainly need to make a case for our work and share it with enthusiasm so people want to see and hear it, but to defend it is to cheapen the integral role it plays in the lives of all people. The world is full of art and artists and will be as long as there are humans in civilizations. Get over it and get on with appreciating it and creating more of it!

Exercises for SFEMS Baroque Students

Hello singers from the SFEMS Baroque workshop! I miss you already, and I loved looking at the pictures of your ensemble and project performances on Facebook.

There were a few requests for vocal exercises, so I’m posting my standard set here. Please feel free to share them. I think there were a few more that I used in our morning warmups, but that aren’t on these sheets. I’ll try to post them soon and will let you know.

Happy singing, and happy Fourth of July!

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Low Voice Warmups
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High Voice Warmups