Irish Dance Revolution

These are not my feet.

The stepdancer pictured here is far more advanced than I am! But I began taking lessons at the Lyons Academy of Irish Dance back in February, and I love it.

Best. Hobby. Ever.

The popularity of Irish Dance has exploded over the past fifteen years. Of course, the Irish have been dancing jigs for centuries. But in the mid-1990s, Michael Flatley brought global attention to the art form with his mesmerizing sell-out performances of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. American kids flocked to stepdancing classes, finding a fun alternative to gymnastics or ballet.  And Irish Dance has its own vibrant subculture, with young students dancing at Celtic fairs all over Europe and North America.

So when my sister suggested that we sign up for an adult beginners class, I thought it sounded like a good idea.  I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to train for another triathlon this year, so I needed a new physical goal.  And what could be more fun than dancing jigs with my sister while listening to fiddles, accordions and bagpipes? (Contrary to common belief, I don’t only listen to opera… well, ok, I do listen to a lot of opera. But not exclusively.)

Still, it was just a fun thing to do on Wednesday nights. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would actually compete at a feis (Irish dance competition) this year. But that’s what happened.  I blame it on our teacher, dance champion Meredith Lyons, because she is an amazing teacher.  She encouraged us to go for the gold… and in fact, I came home from the Long Beach Halloween Feis with three gold medals and two silvers! (Full disclosure: there were only a dozen people in the adult beginners category.)  I had so much fun.

Irish dancers use two kinds of shoes: soft shoes (or ghillies) and hard shoes. There are four traditional soft shoe dances: the reel, light jig, slip jig, and single jig. The difference between the dances has to do with the time signature of the music. Reels are in 4/4 time, but light and single jigs are in 6/8, and slip jigs are in 9/8. There are also a variety of hard shoe dances: the hornpipe (syncopated 2/4 or 4/4), as well as the treble jig, the treble reel and traditional set dances.

So if you need a lift, I recommend Irish Dance. It’s great exercise and it’s guaranteed to improve your mood. After all, it’s hard not to grin when you’re dancing a jig.  Just stepdance your cares away! But I warn you: it’s addictive.

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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

Full Post at iCadenza.com

Running Home

Do you like to run? How would you feel about running from Canada to Mexico?

Meet Norma Bastidas, ultra-marathoner and mother of two, who is running 2600 miles to raise awareness about violence and domestic abuse.

Norma left Vancouver on April 21st, and she ran past my house in Los Angeles two weeks ago. Today, she’s running through the Sonora Desert and she plans to arrive in her hometown of Mazatlan, Mexico on the 8th of July! You can follow her journey at: Running Home, A Journey to End Violence.

I am always inspired by people who do “impossible” things, so I felt very privileged to meet Norma. Her athletic career is nothing short of amazing: she has run ultra-marathons on all 7 continents and she’s also an accomplished mountaineer. She has run on all kinds of terrain, from the sands of Namibia to the ice of Antarctica. (How do you top that?)

But this journey is special.  “I wanted to do something really hard,” she told me. “And I believe in what I’m doing.”  She wants to put an end to violence.  Does that seem impossible?  Remember that this woman is running all the way from Canada to Mexico. There isn’t much that seems impossible to Norma.

When I heard she was coming to my house, I made sure to get her some fuel: multi-vitamins, L-glutamines, and lots of pasta! She was grateful for the dinner, but she was almost too excited to eat. Instead of focusing on her own amazing story, Norma kept asking me about my projects. She wanted to hear about my festival in Nepal, and my dreams of singing in Africa. She asked how I was using my music to inspire people.

Sitting on my couch on the 9th of June, Norma was absolutely glowing with happiness. (No one should look that beautiful after running every day for two months!) She couldn’t wait to tell me about her mission.

“Every time you decide to push the limits of what you think is possible, they get a little further,” she said. “But you have to be smart about it.   You don’t want to put yourself in danger for no reason. So I always ask myself: am I afraid because it’s really dangerous, or am I just afraid to fail? If it’s just my ego talking, that’s not a good enough reason not to try.”

I think she’s right.  It’s important to take risks sometimes. It’s not about winning a trophy or “being the best.”  It’s about pouring your life into something that matters.

You might not be able to run sixty miles in a day like Norma Bastidas.  But isn’t there something you’ve been wanting to do? Some dream you have given up because it feels impossible?

Michelangelo wrote, “the greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

So where is your next “finish line?” Maybe you could go just a little bit farther? Re-think your own boundaries. Push the limits of possible.

Superior Vocal Health

How do singers stay in peak vocal condition?

“Water, sleep, and good technique!”

That’s what I always tell my students. But what about throat sprays? Do they really work?

To be honest, I don’t trust every throat spray on the market. I’m skeptical of anything that claims to improve vocal quality. Even when I’m ill, I rely on my vocal technique to get me through a performance.  Technique is a singer’s first line of defense!

But there are days when your throat gets attacked by allergies, cold viruses, air conditioning, altitude and humidity. Is there a throat spray out there that can make those days a little easier? Yes, there is.

I’ve just discovered a line of all-natural products by Superior Vocal Health.  These organic herbal formulas were created by a professional singer, so they are specifically designed for singers. And they work.

1. Throat Saver (spray). Throat saver is a refreshing spray with a sweet, minty taste. It moistens the throat, reduces mucus, and boosts immunity. It’s safe enough to be used several times a day, in between rehearsals.

As a frequent flyer, I notice that my mouth gets dry after several hours on an airplane. So there is already a special place for Throat Saver in my flying pharmacy, the little medicine kit that travels with me whenever I get on a plane.

2. Sinus Clear Out  (tongue dropper application).  One April day, I woke up with a miserable headache behind my eyes. My nasal passages were swollen and painful. After putting two small drops of Sinus Clear Out on the back of my tongue, I was overwhelmed by the taste of horseradish and alcohol! But just 9 minutes later, my headache was completely gone. (It’s rare for any sinus medication to work that fast!) Within thirty minutes, my Eustachian tubes were clear and my nose was back to normal. Since I suffer from chronic sinus allergies, I was absolutely amazed. This is seriously good stuff.

3. Vocal Rescue (gargle). This gargle solution combines Turmeric with ginger and honey to soothe a sore throat.This is made for more serious conditions like laryngitis or tonsillitis. It can also save your voice from wear and tear during an intense performance schedule. But please do not swallow; Vocal Rescue is only to be used as a gargle.

Of course, this is great news for singers. But it is just as exciting for actors, professors, politicians, and for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. Just remember that everyone’s body chemistry is a little bit different, so you may react differently. I strongly suggest that you do not use any medication in a vocal emergency until you have first tried it on a non-performance day. But take the time to experiment with these formulas. I think you’ll find that they are safe and effective.

Personally, I’m very careful about what I put in my throat, so I might never have discovered these products if I hadn’t received free samples for the Globetrotting Soprano. But at $19.95, they are reasonably priced, and I have been genuinely impressed by the results. I’ll be buying more.

As a traveling opera singer, I need to stay in peak vocal condition. Most of the time, I can rely on my health and my technique.  But there are days when I need an extra boost, and that’s when it’s nice to know about Superior Vocal Health.

Opera Therapy

Why does music make us feel better?

Do sound waves actually have healing properties?

Opera is medicinal, and not just because there are sometimes “doctors” onstage! In this image, Dr. Dulcamara dispenses potions to Nemorino (Robert McPherson) in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. But there is serious evidence that music plays an important role in physical and mental health.

Music therapy has produced some exciting results. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that music therapy can reverse the symptoms of a wide variety of disorders, from dyslexia to Parkinson’s. It even improves the outcomes of patients with brain trauma!

In the ancient world, no one questioned the link between music and medicine.  The ancient Greeks treated patients with melodies, and they considered Apollo the god of both healing and music. Traditional Chinese medicine used particular pitches to heal diseases; in fact, the Chinese word for medicine comes from the word for music!  And in the Bible, David practices a form of music therapy when he soothes King Saul’s rage with his harp.

Thousands of years later, music therapy still has a profound effect on mental health. It can even help victims of severe emotional abuse. My talented cousin, Devon Feldmeth, will be doing drama and music therapy with orphans and former child soldiers in Uganda this summer! Click here to learn more about her project.

In Tibet, healers use sound bowls to cure their patients of both physical and emotional distress. At this clinic in Thailand, singing sound bowls are a part of therapy. The vibration is meant to restore the body’s natural balance.

But it is a misconception that music therapists only use the type of  “new age” music you might hear in an incense-scented massage room.  Sometimes, the very best results happen when the therapist plays the music that the patient loves most.  Watch this dramatic transformation when an elderly man listens to his favorite songs:

In Sweden, some opera singers make house calls!  If you are depressed in Stockholm, you can apply to have an opera singer come and sing an aria for you in your living room.  The arias are from traditional operatic literature and they are chosen to address certain emotions and situations.  The program has been especially effective for couples who want to resolve conflict. It’s called Opera Aid.

As a group, opera singers tend to believe in the healing power of the human voice!  We actually “self-medicate” by singing, and we find joy and energy in our music every day. Is this because of the emotion in the music?  Or is it the vibration of the frequencies that we sing? Or does singing really soften the soul?  Whatever the reason, music is pretty powerful stuff.

So next time you’re feeling under the weather, try some opera therapy! Crank up the Puccini, or ask your favorite singer to give you a live performance. You might just find that music is therapeutic, both in the sound itself, and in the space between the notes. “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” William Congreve

Food for Singers: The Diva Diet

How do you feed a singing voice? What do you eat? When do you eat? What foods should you avoid?

For a singer, eating right is a balancing act.

Food is fuel, and you need enough fuel to get through your show. But too much food could make you lethargic on stage, and the wrong kind of food could irritate your throat, ruining your performance.

So you have to juggle everything that you know about nutrition… with everything you know about your own body. This photo is by She Knows Health & Fitness, a good resource for health tips.

When people travel to far-off places, they usually relax their diets and enjoy the local cuisine. But singers do not have the same luxury. When we travel to Rome or Tokyo for an opera gig, we have to think about how the food will affect the voice.

This week, I asked my singer friends what they like to eat before a performance.  I got responses from opera singers all over the world! And the results* are fascinating.  Here are their answers: the 5 best foods for singing … and the 5 worst foods for singing!

5 BEST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Water – Dehydration is a singer’s worst nightmare. Dry vocal cords are less flexible and more susceptible to damage.  But don’t wait until the last minute to get a drink! The vocal folds are one of the last places in the body to get hydrated. So you can’t moisten your throat (from the inside) until you have consumed enough water to hydrate all of your vital organs. The singers in my survey reported drinking up to a gallon of water on the day before a performance. They drink more water as soon as they wake up the next morning. And they keep a couple of water bottles backstage during the performance.

2. Veggies & Fruit – Singers pile their plates full of green leafy vegetables. These help the body shed toxins and fight diseases. For optimal vocal performance, Aaron Lim, author of Your Personal Singing Guide, recommends fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamins A, C & E. One of the singers in my survey is a vegan and she selects raw foods packed with nutritional value; before singing, she drinks a green smoothie with kale or chard, juicy fruit, flax seeds, dates and water.

Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are cancer-fighting, mood-improving, probiotic superfoods! But wait until after your performance to indulge your saurkraut habit, because salty foods absorb water.

3. Protein –  Just like athletes, singers need protein to maintain their strength and stamina. Many singers like fish and poultry, because they are high in protein but low in fat. But a couple of the singers in my survey reported needing iron-rich red meats on the day before a performance. Vegetarian singers prefer protein shakes and energy bars.

4. Small “Combo” Meals – Many singers eat a small meal about two hours before the curtain goes up. They can’t afford to get dizzy onstage, so they avoid sugary and starchy foods that could spike their blood sugar. Instead, the singers in my survey picked foods with a low glycemic index. They also balanced their proteins and carbs.  Favorite meals included salmon and salad, eggs and toast, or chicken and rice.

5. Vocal “Lubricants”– Food and water never come in direct contact with the vocal cords. But there are some snacks that stimulate saliva production, bringing relief to singers who suffer from “dry mouth.”  These include apples, lemons, hard candy and ginger tea.  If you’re feeling hoarse or scratchy, a spoonful of honey will soothe your throat and fight off bacteria.

5 WORST FOODS FOR SINGING

1. Alcohol – Many people only sing in public if they’re tipsy, but opera singers finally stop singing when they drink.  Here’s why: alcohol causes the tissues in the larynx to swell, reducing vocal control.

2. Heavy Foods – Singers avoid fatty foods, greasy foods, and anything that might give them gas. Remember that food is fuel, but don’t overtank! Singing depends on good breath management. If you eat too much, your digestive system will slow down and your abdominal muscles will relax and you’ll find it harder to support your air.

3. Caffeine – Caffeinated drinks steal moisture from the body. Also remember that caffeine is a real drug and it can hype you up. Performing is exciting enough by itself; you don’t want to flood your body with caffeine and adrenaline.

4. Spicy Foods – Garlic and other spices are fantastic for the immune system, but they are hard on the vocal folds. They can also irritate the stomach, causing acid reflux. You’ll also want to avoid foods with nuts or small particles that could get lodged in your throat.

When I was singing and teaching in Kathmandu, I lived on naan and tea for days at a time. Why? Because my digestive system was in shock. I couldn’t tolerate yak’s milk at all. And I loved the spicy boar, but the spicy boar didn’t love me.

5. Milk – Dairy products have been linked to sinus infections.   To a singer, there is nothing worse than having a raging infection in the ears, nose and throat. For many years, we were taught that drinking milk actually produced phlegm.  This turns out to be a myth, and yet some singers do get congested when they use milk products.

I was lactose intolerant until I moved to Austria, where my digestive system cured itself. (Note that this is medically impossible, but it happened anyway.) I thank Austrian cows for my current ability to eat cheese — after all, Austrian cows appear to be happier and healthier than American cows, and they have better cowbells, so I think they deserve the credit. 😉

It’s best not to be too neurotic about what you eat. Anxiety does not help you sing better. But clearly, food plays an important role in the singer’s life.  If you want to stay in peak vocal condition, you need to choose your meals wisely. And that concludes this episode of the Diva Diet. Bon appétit!

* Please note that this was an informal survey with a very small sample size. It does not attempt to be a formal study with statistical significance.   

Travel Fitness: the Diva Workout

Singing is a sport.

Opera singers may not look like swimsuit models, but they are actually cardio champions.

According to the American Journal of Nursing, opera singers have stronger chest-wall muscles, greater lung capacity, and more efficient hearts than their non-singing friends.

But, if classical singing requires the muscle coordination of a professional athlete, why are singers so… plump?  Not all opera singers are heavy, but many cantanti struggle with their weight. Does it have to do with body type?  Metabolism? Lifestyle? No one knows for sure.   A New York Times article cited a study suggesting that singers produce too much leptin. We do know that the sound of a human voice is influenced by the size and shape of the body. Some people believe that fat actually produces a more resonant sound! Whatever the reason, the extra curves get noticed. There is increasing pressure on opera singers to lose weight.

That’s why so many 21st century singers are signing up for total body fitness programs!  Personally, I prefer a combination of yoga, Irish dancing, and cycling by the beach. (I also list “singing Wagner” as one of my endurance sports.)

I enjoy some fitness video games: Wii Fit Plus for strength and posture, and ABBA You Can Dance for those rare moments when I’ve had enough opera and I’m craving happy ’70s music.

But how on earth do you maintain a program of cardio, strength, and flexibility training when you’re on the road? For people who travel, exercise is a special challenge. It requires a lot of planning! I like to collect tips from this cool blog: My Travel Fitness

In 2010, I traveled to Spain for an opera contest while I was training for my first triathlon. Before I even got on the plane, I wrote down the directions from my Spanish hotel to the nearest public swimming pool. I also found the nearest bike rental shop. When I got there, I went hiking as often as possible.  For me, singing always comes first, but I managed to maintain a (slightly less rigorous) triathlon training schedule. I may not have a castle in Spain… but I’ve jogged around one.

Most singers find that they can improve their energy and vocal stamina by spending more time at the gym. They are more comfortable with dancing, and swordplay, and leaping around onstage if they have taken martial arts classes, or dance aerobics, or gyrotonics. Exercise also helps melt away the stress of a major career. Cindy Sadler has blogged about her success with cycling.  Renée Fleming does Pilates.

And if you’re not a singer, but you’re looking for a fun new cardio activity, try voice lessons! Singers learn advanced breathing techniques by training the muscles of the thorax and the abdominal wall. An opera colleague of mine surprised her doctor by demonstrating that she could hold a normal conversation while jogging on the treadmill.  “Sustaining breath control over an elevated pulse?” she scoffed.  “Yeah, that’s kinda what I do.”  Singing is fun and it’s good for your heart, too! 🙂

Finally, I’d like to share an opera video has been circulating on Facebook this week. It demonstrates the advantages of being in shape (check out what happens at 0:50):

The Flying Medicine Cabinet

Because I’m a singer, I am often asked how to get rid of a cold.

My personal remedy is very simple: SLEEP!  9 times out of 10, I can fight off a cold virus by taking a nap.

But when sleep doesn’t work, I do have some favorite products.  And since I’m a frequent flyer, I travel with my own personal pharmacy.

Some singers hoard antibiotics.  This is generally a bad idea. Always consult a doctor before indulging in the meds that end in -cillin and -mycin!

But what do you do if you get a toothache on the day before an important audition in Germany? Two weeks ago, I was preparing an audition when the left part of my jaw started to ache. An impacted wisdom tooth had chosen this particular day to get infected.

So I did what anyone would do: I sent a panicked text message my dentist in Pasadena!   He texted me a prescription for Amoxicillin.  (Hooray for technology!) When I got to the local Apotheke (apothecary), I simply handed my iPhone to the pharmacist.  She squinted at the screen and asked me in German, “Is this from a real doctor?”  I was able to demonstrate my dentist’s credentials, so I got my meds. The next day, I went to my audition happy and pain-free.

Of course, it helps that I speak German. I do not speak Russian (except for phonetically, which doesn’t help in a medical emergency). When my father broke his foot in St. Petersburg in 2007, I couldn’t find the word for “ace bandage” in my pocket dictionary. So I went to the pharmacy and mimed wrapping my leg with strips of gauze. Judging by the Russian pharmacist’s reaction, it was a very entertaining performance. He was giggling uncontrollably as he went to find the bandage. But that’s another story for another blog post…

Back to business. Here is my list of favorite cold remedies:

1. Tantum Verde (one of my all-time favorites, which I discovered at a farmacia in Rome)

2. Grapefruit Seed extract (don’t ask me why it works. It’s probably a placebo. I don’t care.)

3. Sudafed (not as good as Actifed, but it will do)

4. The neti pot (if you can handle it)

5. Foods with garlic. (Seriously.)

6. SLEEP!!! and lots of tea

7. Afrin sinus

8. Zinc lozenges

If you know another product that works for you, please tell me about it in the comments section!  I’m actually very healthy, so I haven’t had a chance to sample many things! But I’m constantly asked about these products, so I like to be well informed.

Some singers also take beta blockers to deal with nerves.  I have never done this because I don’t like to play around with my biochemistry.  Avoid the powerful drugs, people!  They can affect your voice. They can affect your life. Just say no.

In the world of pharmacology, a little goes a long way. I will never forget how helpful it was to have Imodium when I landed in Kathmandu and discovered that I was allergic to yak’s milk (yaktose intolerant?).  Or the herbs that I drank when I had an unexplained fever in Tokyo. These were just simple over the counter remedies, but they made it possible for me to get onstage and sing all my concerts.

Here’s a link to a funny little video about opera singers and hypochondria. Stay healthy!