Surfing the Imagination

179078_10150390036720004_249716_nSome people think that creativity cannot be taught. “You either have it or you don’t,” they say.  But I happen to know that this is total bunk.

Music education is all about training the imagination!  And because I’m passionate about singing well, my own imagination is constantly getting stretched, tweaked and cultivated.

In the classic Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street, a little girl named Susan Walker (played by Natalie Wood) has never exercised her imagination. So Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) coaches her patiently in the art of pretending.

Voice lessons are actually based on the same principle, that a kindly mentor can shape his student’s earliest experiments in creativity.  And by the time she goes onstage to sing a role, a young opera singer needs to be very good at pretending!

Of course, this always includes a lot of discipline and hard work. We tend to assume that creativity is the opposite of discipline, but that could not be further from the truth.  Only a skilled musician has the power to be fully expressive, because she knows so many different ways to sing the same phrase. She can choose from a wide variety of musical tools. Stephen Covey got it right when he said that “only the disciplined are truly free.”

But freedom is hard to control, and maybe that’s why people use so many ocean metaphors when they talk about creativity.  Inspiration is often described as a cresting wave. Well, if creativity is a wave, then artists are imagination surfers! And everyone knows that surfers have to practice.

When I was training for my first triathlon, I attended a swim clinic hosted by the LA Tri Club. It’s for newbies who want to try ocean swimming, and it’s called Ocean 101.

I learned a lot about singing while I was treading water in Santa Monica Bay at 6 o’clock in the morning.  “You can’t control the ocean,” the teacher told us sternly. “But you can control your thoughts.”  He was telling us that ocean swimming is a mental game that requires both concentration and playfulness.  Even a body surfer uses the energy of the wave to arrive at his destination.  He has fun but he plays by the ocean’s rules.

In the same way, a musician might not be able to control a surge of creative energy, but she can train herself to surf it with increasing expertise.  And that’s why the imagination needs to be taken seriously.  After all, it’s a wild and watery thing — it needs to be treated with respect!

Without rigorous training, however, the imagination can shrink and atrophy. But of course it never goes away completely, and it responds very well to the slightest bit of attention. That’s why it’s so important to practice (and to teach!) creativity.

“My imagination needs feeding and exercise,” writes Rev. Elizabeth Nordquist in her blog post, Imagining a Story of Spirit. “Imagination in prayer is a gift of God.” But how can we approach any holy mystery without a powerful, well-trained imagination?

So go ahead and dream. Be an imagination surfer. Follow your creative instinct and imagine your way into something new.  It just requires a little bit of mental yoga.

In the words of Dr. Seuss: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”

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the Art of Listening

Opera doesn’t always prepare you for real-life situations. My education in stagecraft did not include many “practical skills,” unless you include sword-fighting and swooning.  I certainly know how to: a) fall in love with a tenor b) go insane c) die of grief or d) slay an enemy. But if there are no tenors or enemies in my general vicinity, I sometimes feel unprepared.

Baby photo from hearos.com

On the other hand, opera does teach you how to listen well, and that turns out to be a very important life skill.

Listening has become a lost art. Our world is full of wonderful distractions like smartphones and nanospeakers. Multi-tasking is the norm; we need laws to prevent people from texting and driving at the same time! We communicate with everybody, but it’s hard to give anybody our full attention. We’re talking more… but listening less.

Musicians have one key advantage in this situation: we already know how to focus our attention on sound. We’ve learned to identify pitches, intervals, melodies, chords, and rhythms without any visual cues. We’ve analyzed thousands of hours of music. We take our “ear training” very seriously!

Just think of a concert violinist, alone in her practice room, drawing her bow across a string.  The intensity of her concentration is absolute.  If she notices the tiniest inconsistency in the vibration… READ MORE
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For the Love of Lieder

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know much about German Romantic poetry. I did read some Goethe and Heine (because I had excellent high school German teachers) but I didn’t exactly grasp the scope of that literary movement. And I couldn’t have guessed that those poems would change my life. (Mendelssohn portrait from Linda Hines’ blog)

But when I moved to Salzburg to study opera, I discovered that other singers had moved to Salzburg to study Lieder. They wanted to make a career of singing art songs, and they were there to study with the great German pianist, Hartmut Höll.

Professor Höll is an inspiring musician, famous for his recordings with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mitsuko Shirai and Renee Fleming.  And his music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s.  He has his own sound; his interpretations are always creative and original. The students at the Mozarteum had tremendous respect for him. They only wanted to show him their very best stuff. And to do that, they had to first understand the poems that the great composers had set to music.

Fortunately, poems were thick on the ground in Austria! People were always throwing around names like Eduard Mörike and Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (which is a long name to throw around).  I found that I could absorb a great deal of information just by standing around and eavesdropping on conversations! That’s how I discovered the Heidelberg poets like Brentano, Arnim and Eichendorff.

There is a special pleasure in reading poetry in a second language. It feels mysterious, like cracking a secret code. You have to let the words linger a bit longer in your mouth to catch the full flavor, but it’s worth the wait. I was floored when I first read Nikolaus Lenau’s “Frühlingsblick” out loud. I was so… READ MORE.

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Conduct Yourself Like an Orchestra

If your life were a symphony, what would it sound like?

Imagine that you have your own invisible orchestra.  It follows you wherever you go, creating a symphonic soundtrack for your life. Which instruments accompany you as you walk down the street, complete a task, or talk to a friend?  (Orchestra map courtesy of BillieSilvey.com)

Everyone has a favorite instrument.  Before I studied opera, I played the saxophone in my high school jazz band. My sister plays the Celtic harp. My mother loves the sound of the violin.  I once had a dog who liked classical piano: he would snuggle up to the stereo speakers whenever a Chopin sonata came on the radio! Which instruments would you choose to play the music of your life?

Opera singers imitate orchestral sounds in the same way that instrumentalists try to capture the sound of the human voice.  Some vocal music is very instrumental in style. When I sing a coloratura passage, I deliberately use my voice like a flute or a clarinet. But my voice also has a brassy shine, which is why I love to sing with trumpets, French horns and trombones!

I once got to sing the soprano solo in Mahler’s fourth symphony with the Mozarteum University Symphony Orchestra. Standing on that stage was like riding a wave of sound, with rich colors and textures swirling all around me. It’s a wonderful feeling to float high above the orchestra and then dive down into all that sumptuous sound. Gustav Mahler, of course, was a legendary composer and a brilliant conductor; he knew how to write music for every instrument, including the voice, and his orchestration was perfect.

I would love to conduct my life the way Mahler conducted his orchestra. I’d like my Friday afternoon to have the power and beauty of the Resurrection Symphony! But unlike Gustav, I am NOT a genius when it comes to instrumentation.

Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, I suddenly realize that I’m using way too much percussion. (Has that ever happened to you? You suddenly notice that you’re intimidating someone, just by being overly enthusiastic?) If I hear myself getting too intense, I cut the bass drum and cue the violins. If I’m complaining too much, I reduce the volume of my oboe. And if I’m getting shrill like an overblown flute, I give the solo line to the cello instead.  But if I find myself hiding in the back of the pit, avoiding what needs to be done, then I add back the brass.  It’s a good way to keep life in balance.

So if you’re feeling uncomfortable today, see if you can adjust your instrumentation. Be aware of your harmonic impact on other people. Aim for a rich and satisfying blend, what Lisa DuBois calls “the treble and bass of a balanced life.”  Orchestrate your to-do list and conduct your conversations.  Live a symphonic life!

Finding Your Own Tempo

What’s your tempo?

How fast are you moving today? How fast are you thinking? Are you in andante?  Allegro?  Molto agitato?

What are your tempo plans for this weekend? Are you hoping for a slow, luxurious adagio? Or something more exciting? Molto vivace?

When I lived in Italy, I found that my personal tempo was too fast for my neighborhood.  As an ambitious young opera singer, I would fly down the street, chasing after my professional goals. My neighbors would gaze at me in amusement. My speed was fine for the center of town, with the busy tourists and zooming motorbikes, but it didn’t match the slower pace of residential life.  In my piazza, people liked to drive quickly, but they preferred to live slowly.

But I was always bursting with energy.  I didn’t want to walk slowly, and I didn’t need a break after lunch. I didn’t want to wait in the long queue at the post office. I was even aggravated by my own voice, which was growing (slowly, leisurely, even languidly) into a more dramatic repertoire.

In my frustration, I went to consult with the great singing teacher, Maestro Sergio Bertocchi. “Why am I not developing more quickly?” I asked him. “Hai fretta,” he said simply. (You’re in a hurry.)  “The voice doesn’t like to be rushed. Never try to learn anything in a hurry. It will only slow you down.”  

Patience is a hard lesson to learn. (I have to keep learning it, over and over again, but I suppose that’s the nature of the lesson…) I must have slowed down a little bit, though, because when I returned to the United States, I was shocked by how fast everyone was going!

When I visited American universities, I was sad to see that so many young voice majors were stressed out!  They were rushing from class to class, juggling double majors, squeezing coachings in between after-school jobs.  They were so busy, and I wondered if they had enough time to practice.

To be a good musician, you need to have time to practice. It’s not just about learning the music.  It’s about forging your own identity as an artist.  You need to spend many hours in a quiet place, away from the noise and the bustle, so that you can hear your own music. You need to spend time in your own “artistic space.”

When I was an undergraduate in Salzburg, I spent many long Saturdays in the practice room. I would sing for hours and hours. And when I was too tired to sing, I would sit down and think about singing. My best friends were the other singers (and pianists) who were crazy enough to spend their weekends at school!  We listened to music, and we talked about music. We had time for music.

Of course, you can’t be a student forever.  These days, there are more demands on my time. But whenever I hear myself telling someone that I’m “too busy,” or that “I don’t have time,” I try to slow down and reset my inner metronome.

Life is like music, and it helps to be aware of your own rhythm. Listen for the beat. Does it match the music you want to hear? If not, you might want to adjust your tempo.

What Your Body Knows

My body knows how to sing. I have studied vocal technique for fifteen years, and I’ve studied with some legendary voice teachers. I feel so privileged to have worked with each one of them. And yet, almost every voice teacher I’ve known has given me the same rotten piece of advice:   “Forget what you learned before you came to me.”

This advice was given to me, over and over again, by well-meaning teachers who wanted to correct some issue in my vocal technique. No matter how many degrees I had earned or how many roles I had sung, they always wanted to start from the very beginning. They wanted to begin with a clean slate.

Since I am now a voice teacher, myself, I know exactly how they felt. When I meet an advanced student who is already an accomplished singer, but who has a bad habit that is holding her back, I wish I could eliminate the problem. I want to go back into her past and fix the bad habit before it started.  But that’s not how it works.

It is very hard to change a “muscle memory.” When you repeat an action over and over again, your brain learns to engage… READ MORE

Muscle map image courtesy of The Muscle Help Foundation

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Mission: Possible

It started when I was 19 years old. I was a college student, studying medieval literature, but I had a secret habit. Late at night, I would sneak into the basement of my dormitory to sing opera.

Singing gave me energy. Whenever I had to pull an all-nighter to study for a test or write a paper, I would go and practice first. If I sang for just one hour, I would have enough energy to stay up all night.

If I went for too many days without singing, I would get restless. Singing had become a physical need! I was literally hungry for music. And when I did sing, I felt a sensation of wild joy. It was a feeling that I couldn’t ignore.

So I ran off to Europe to become an opera singer. I left school and flew to Austria, where I sang my heart out on the stage of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. I was immediately accepted into a seven-year degree program in opera. That was the beginning of my adventure.

When I followed my bliss all the way to Salzburg, I had a very clear sense of mission. I dared to entertain the idea that God… Read More

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Listen to Your Life

Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When I graduated from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, I did not expect to create an opera festival in Nepal. That was not part of my “five-year plan” for launching my career. But in the summer of 2009, due to a very unusual chain of events, I found myself singing and teaching in Kathmandu!

Just a few months earlier, I had been struggling to survive in New York City. My master’s degree in opera was framed on the wall, but I was not getting enough “opera gigs” to pay the rent. So I took a day job with a non-profit organization called Hope Partnership Nepal.

While working for HPN, I learned that Nepal is a beautiful country that has been ravaged by civil war and political upheaval. Most Westerners are completely unaware… Read More

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Living Outside the Box

When I tell people that I’m an opera singer, they often gasp in surprise. That’s because most people don’t think opera is a real job. I might just as easily have said that I’m a dragon slayer or an alchemist.

And then, when I tell them that I don’t belong to a company, but travel around the world performing as a soloist, they get even more excited. Finally, they ask me if I’m famous, but… Read more

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Photo by cutebabiespictures.com

Inside the Master Class

What really happens at a master class?

I’ve had the privilege of studying with several famous opera singers at master classes. They have taught me more than just vocal technique and musicianship.

Here are some of the secrets I’ve learned from great singers.

I remember the moment that I first saw Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was January 2002. I was sitting in a crowded auditorium in Stuttgart, Germany. Suddenly, the backstage door swung open.  In that instant, the room fell silent and three hundred heads swiveled to look at her. At the age of 86, Schwarzkopf could command attention simply by walking into a room.

A master class is a seminar for advanced music students (or young professionals) conducted by a master musician. The student performs a piece of music in front of the whole class while the teacher critiques the performance.

Frau Schwarzkopf was famous for making caustic comments at her master classes. She could be pretty brutal with her students.  I was thinking about her reputation when I climbed onstage to sing Hugo Wolf’s Schlafendes Jesuskind for her.  The song opens with the words, “Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!”  But it took me eight tries to get to the word “Himmelskind,” because Frau Schwarzkopf kept interrupting me.  A couple of times, I hadn’t even made a sound before she yelled, “Nein!”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a stickler for detail. Every breath, every expression, every vowel had to be just right. I learned a lot about Wolf Lieder that day. But I learned even more about willpower and charisma, qualities that Schwarzkopf possessed in abundance!

Master classes are never just about singing.  They’re about how to live your life.  (See Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.) Singers are natural mimics — we learn by imitation and even by osmosis! We absorb a great deal of information simply by being around great artists. And this has little to do with what is actually taught or discussed.

Montserrat Caballé is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of singing at her master class in Zaragoza, Spain. Her curriculum included a lot of vocal anatomy; she enjoys the science of singing. But it was her contagious joie de vivre that most impressed me. Studying Casta diva with her was simultaneously gratifying and alarming, because her passion for Bellini is visible. It shines through her like a light.

Master classes are special times in the life of a singer because most voice lessons do not happen in front of an audience. Soloists usually take individual lessons. Professional opera singers continue to work with voice teachers and vocal coaches throughout their career, but this training is usually one-on-one.

And yet, there is something about the group learning experience that really works for musicians. Singers who have struggled for years can make huge breakthroughs in a master class. I’ve seen it happen. In just a few days, a student can experience an exponential learning curve.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Mirella Freni teaches her own students in a “master class” format. When I moved to Italy to study with her in 2005, I did not realize that my “classroom” would be a sixteenth century palace! On the day of my first lesson, I climbed up a magnificent spiral staircase to a large chamber with painted ceilings, where sixteen young singers were singing arias for each other while Signora Freni made suggestions.

Mirella Freni is, of course, a musical genius.  She sings in a very natural and authentic way, as if she were holding a conversation.

I think the best moment may have been when some of my colleagues asked Ms. Freni how to produce a pianissimo. They wanted to hear about the physical process, how to use their abdominal muscles and resonance chambers, etc. But she gave them a more profound answer.

“What is the best way to support a soft sound, Signora?”

Bemused, Mirella Freni gazed back at them. “Con lo stato d’animo, ragazzi.” (Stato d’animo can be translated “mood,” “spirit,” or “frame of mind,” but what she literally said was, “With the state of your soul, kids.”)

When I went to visit Ms. Freni last spring, I found that she had moved her academy to Modena, the town where both she and Luciano Pavarotti were born. Her master classes are held in a former hospital, in what used to be the cardiology wing.  There is poetic justice in that, since Freni’s music is about singing from the heart.

Of course, master classes are often a mixed experience. When a student wants to learn, and a teacher wants to teach, there is nothing better than a master class.  But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

Master Class is actually the title of a play about Maria Callas, written by Terrance McNally, in which Callas teaches students about singing while reliving episodes from her own life. And like the play, a real master class can reveal someone’s hidden agenda.

Sometimes, the student just wants to demonstrate how fabulous she already is. Meanwhile, the teacher wants to prove her greatness as a teacher. They both need professional affirmation; they both want to shine.  And they both end up feeling hurt and unappreciated. This is completely unnecessary.

A really masterful pedagogue can adapt to the student’s own learning style. Some students are more kinesthetic; others are more verbal.  Some make huge intuitive leaps simply from imitating the sounds in the room; others need a step-by-step methodology that they can write down.

An experienced maestro knows how to critique a student without discouraging him. He knows what to say and what not to say. Some of the best vocal coaches I’ve known have a Zen-like ability to teach without saying anything at all!

I was not quite that wise when I went to teach vocal workshops at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in 2009. I had prepared a several multi-media presentations on topics from breathing technique to the history of Western opera. And I think it was useful. But I noticed that my students got even more from my energy and attention than they did from my information. That’s how it works.

Master classes aren’t just about music. They’re about life.