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
Full post at www.icadenza.com

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My Inner Italian

Fluency is a survival skill.

If you have a vague desire to become fluent in a language, you will probably fail. But if you need to be fluent, your brain will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nothing can stop you.

I know this to be true.  This is the story of how I (briefly) became Italian.

When I moved to Italy in the spring of 2005, I stuck out like a sore thumb. You could tell I was a foreigner from a mile away. It wasn’t just my blonde hair and my H&M wardrobe; it was my whole way of being!  My gait, my mannerisms, my accent. Of course, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that I was American. Many people guessed that I was Swedish or German. But I was definitely not Italian.

Strangely, this came as a complete shock to me. Having lived in Austria for seven years, I already felt very much at home in Europe. I thought that I was good at adapting to new cultures. But I did not realize how much my comfort was tied to my northern European look. When I moved from Vienna to Florence, I suddenly stopped “blending in.”

Fortunately, I did speak some Italian. After all, I had been singing Italian opera for years! My education at the Mozarteum had included three years of Italian classes, and I had continued to study the language in Vienna.  But when I won a scholarship to study with Mirella Freni at her academy in Vignola, I discovered just how much Italian I didn’t know.

I remember my first night at school in Italy.  I was sitting at a long table in a local restaurant in Vignola with all of my classmates from the academy. I was at the middle of the table, so I could hear about four different Italian conversations going on around me. But I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I had made an effort to speak Italian all day long, but now it was after 10 PM, and I couldn’t even speak German and English anymore, let alone Italian. “I have to learn fast,” I thought to myself.  “I’m the only American at this school. I have to get comfortable in Italian as soon as possible.”

And amazingly, I did.  But I would never have succeeded without the help of my roommates. I was rooming with two extraordinarily talented young singers: Beatriz Diaz from Spain and Chiara Amarù from Palermo.  The three of us became the best of friends! Chiara was so kind and patient with us as she taught us to navigate her native language.  Together, we laughed and cried through the intricacies of Italian verbs.

But we only roomed together while we were at school in Vignola, and that was only one week out of each month.  The rest of the time, I lived in Florence, where I was working for Opera St Mark’s. I loved living in a city of history and art and culture, but I couldn’t get used to the fact that strangers were constantly approaching me! With my bright hair and touristy image, I attracted a lot of attention.

At first, I enjoyed chatting with people. But I got so tired of the question, “where are you from,” that I started to make up outlandish answers.  “I’m from Brazil,” I would say firmly. Or I might claim to be from Greece or Korea or Egypt.  This made the Italians laugh until they cried.  “Please, miss, where are you from?” they would ask as I passed them on the street. And I would reply, “Dalla Antartide. Non si vede?” (From Antarctica. Can’t you tell?)  It was my little joke.

Out of sheer necessity, I enrolled in Italian classes at the Istituto Italiano in Florence.  They have great intensive courses, with fun field trips! After a few months, I had earned certificates in advanced grammar and conversation and diction. I passed all my exams.

But the real test of my language skills came when I was asked to be the official interpreter at an opera master class taught by Sergio Bertocchi! Three students from Australia and Singapore had come to Italy to study with Maestro Bertocchi, and since I was the only native English speaker in residence at the academy, I would be their interpreter. I didn’t have too much trouble translating their voice lessons, or helping them order at the restaurant.  But I gulped when Maestro Bertocchi asked me to spontaneously translate his lecture on vocal anatomy and the philosophy of singing! Somehow, I managed to translate an hour-long graduate level lecture, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember a thing that Maestro Bertocchi had said.

Meanwhile, I worked very hard to create a life for myself in Florence.  I made friends in the local ex-pat community.  I bought a membership card for the Uffizi Museum so that I could look at great art every day. And I also got to know the churches of Florence very well: I worshiped in one, sang concerts in another, and practiced my music in a third!

Day by day, things began to change.  The people in my Florentine neighborhood started to accept me as one of their own.  The guys in the pizzeria nodded as I went by. I had a “regular” order at the caffè in the piazza.  I shopped in Italian stores and read Italian news. Once, I even got interviewed for a market research survey about Italian brand names!

But I didn’t realize just how Italian I had become until the day I moved back to the States.  My mother had come to Rome to help me move, and we were shoving all of my worldly possessions into the trunk of a taxi.  But the taxi driver, thinking that we were gullible tourists, charged us triple the usual rate. Naturally, I started to argue with the taxista in a loud voice, with my hands flying. The Italian language had become a part of me, gestures and all!  (Click here for a quick guide to Italian gestures.) I won the debate and got my money back, but then I looked over to find my mom suppressing giggles.  “I can’t help it,” she insisted. “My daughter sounds like Sophia Loren!”

So that is the story of how I became Italian, just for a little while.  It wasn’t a permanent change. After returning to the United States, I lost some of my italianità.  But every now and then, my inner Italian comes out!

My Italian side can be triggered by little things: the smell of oregano, the sound of a vespa, or an exquisite piece of Renaissance art. And suddenly I feel like I’m back under the Tuscan sun, my heels clicking on the cobblestones while I adjust my sunglasses and chatter away in Italian with my friends.

If you really want to learn Italian, make it a top priority! Then, get in touch with your Italian side. Eat Italian food. Argue with an Italian taxi driver. Read an Italian website. Listen to an Italian opera! Release your inner Italian. Arrivederci.

My Name in Japanese

Tokyo, 2005 ~ By the time I landed at Narita International Airport, I knew that something was wrong.

I felt sick, and this was very annoying, because I almost never get sick. In fact, people can usually count on me to “jump in” at the last minute to sing for sick colleagues.

But sinus headaches are my Achilles’ heel. Just before the plane took off, I had sensed a familiar throbbing between the eyes.  Then after thirteen hours of breathing airplane air, I was congested and my throat felt raw.

What a great way to start my first Japanese concert tour!

My friend and pianist, Ayako Watanabe, met me at the airport. She had planned the details of our tour. We were scheduled to perform eight concerts in twenty days.

I’ve mentioned Ayako before, but this was long before we ever performed in Moscow, Los Angeles, and Kathmandu together. Back in 2005, we had only recently graduated from the Mozarteum, and we had just given  a series of Liederabende (art song recitals) in Salzburg and Vienna. Now we wanted to “take our show on the road” and perform in Tokyo, Ayako’s hometown!

Our first rehearsal went well, but when I finally admitted that I “might” be getting sick, Ayako gasped. “Lindsay! That cannot happen.”

She took me straight to the doctor. As soon as we got there, she filled out my paperwork for me; people smiled when they heard us chatting in German. We took off our shoes before we sat down in the waiting room. I stuffed my big American feet into dainty little plastic slippers.

I was still admiring my plastic slippers when the nurse came to the door and called out, “Rin-Shee-San?”

“That’s me?” I exclaimed in German.  “My name is Rin-Shee?”

“Rinjii,” Ayako giggled. “I tried to spell it out in Japanese.”

“What’s my last name then? Is it still Feldmeth?” I asked.

“No, it sounds more like Perdometo,” Ayako said sweetly. I threw her a confused look as we followed the nurse inside. (I guess there are just too many consonant clusters in Feldmeth.)

The doctor gave me a combination of herbs and medicines and told me to take it easy. By the next day, I felt much better, but I was still a little weak.

Right before our first concert, I found a quiet spot backstage where I could lie down.  I rested there for a few minutes. When I opened my eyes, I saw an older gentleman looking down at me with a worried expression.

“¿Tienes fiebre?” he asked.  I decided that I must be delirious because it sounded like this nice Japanese man was speaking Spanish to me! “Me duele la cabeza,” I told him. My Spanish isn’t great, but it’s much better than my Japanese.

Later, Ayako explained that the owner of the concert hall was an excellent musician, himself, and that he had studied music in Spain.  Then it all made sense. My name was Rinjii and I was speaking Spanish in Tokyo. Stranger things have happened, right?

And I was still singing Mozart and Strauss. So at least that was familiar!

Once I got my strength back, I started to really have fun in Japan. Ayako is a fantastic tour guide.

I ate sushi. I got fitted for a kimono. I went on a river cruise. I saw Mount Fuji. I experienced the Chinatown in Yokohama. On a cold night in Kyoto, I even saw a geisha hurrying along the road.

One morning, we woke up to discover that it was snowing in Kyoto! The famous temple gardens were now frosted with snowflakes. It was dazzling. I have pictures, but they don’t do it justice. The scenes I tried to photograph were large and bright, so Ayako and I look like tiny black smudges against a pretty white world. But I still consider this once of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life: a Japanese flower garden dusted with fresh fallen snow.

And of course, we had our music. Everywhere we went, our audiences were very warm and appreciative. We sang in some amazing venues and we felt humbled to receive several standing ovations. We even got to do some concerts with the Japanese violinist, Misai Takahashi.  It was an unforgettable tour.

But as soon as I got home to Austria, I made an appointment with a famous otolaryngologist.  I just wanted to be sure I hadn’t damaged my voice by singing that first concert when I was ill.  So I went to the doctor trusted by all of the singers at the Vienna State Opera, Dr. Reinhard Kürsten.

Dr. Kürsten examined my throat with his laryngoscope. It was hooked up to a TV screen so that he could give me a guided tour of my own larynx. “You’re fine!” he said cheerfully. “The voice looks very healthy. Nice, thick vocal cords. It’s a pleasure to look at them.”

The truth is that you can still sing when you have a slight cold, but you have to know how to protect your voice. My voice teacher, Horiana Branisteanu, had trained me very well for that contingency. She showed me how to take all unnecessary pressure off of my throat. In fact, I now teach singers and speakers how to protect their voices when they’re slightly ill.

So that’s the story of how I got my Japanese name.  If you want to know your own Japanese name, check out this website. Sayōnara!


The Day I Saw Mount Everest

Kathmandu, 2009 ~ My Himalayan adventure began very early on a Thursday morning.

It was the beginning of monsoon season, and there were some very black clouds on the horizon. I thought I felt some raindrops on my neck as we headed for Tribhuvan Airport.

We had flown into the same airport when we first arrived in Nepal on a flight from Bangkok, but we had come into the international terminal. The security check at the domestic terminal involved separating into male and female lines. To enter the departure lounge, we first had to enter a special curtained room, so that a gender-appropriate official could check us.

“Oh, you’ll love the domestic terminal,” an American friend had told me.  “It’s straight out of Indiana Jones. They sell whips and knives. There’s a snake charmer in the corner.”

He was joking, of course. When I passed through the heavy curtains, I found myself in a very normal looking departure lounge, with powder blue walls and large posters advertising Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air. The plastic benches were full of people waiting for their flights. There was a table in the corner where a man was selling instant coffee with yak’s milk.

I sat down on the floor with my mom and another friend from Hope Partnership Nepal. We had come to Nepal to create a music festival and to do some service projects.  But we had this morning off, and we wanted to fly around Mt. Everest!

We were told that our flight might be canceled because of the weather. We waited quietly for over an hour, wondering if our plane would be allowed to take off. The mood in the lounge was very somber. There was a smell coming from the restroom, which featured a hole in the ground and a bucket of water but no toilet paper. Finally, a crackling voice came over the loudspeaker.  “Buddha Air, next flight departing at 7:06.”  Everything was announced in both Nepali and English.

As we boarded the tiny plane, I tried to remember some Nepali phrases that my friend Rabin had taught me: तपाईंलाई कस्तो छ? (How are you?) मलाइ सन्चै छ । तपाईलाई नि? (I’m fine, thanks. And you?)  I could never make the words stick in my head.

Our tour guide greeted us warmly and explained that we might not be able to see much.  It was raining, after all.  If the storm got worse, we would have to return without seeing the Himalayas at all.

We ascended slowly, leaving the rooftops of Kathmandu far below. Suddenly, we broke through the clouds into a bright, sunlit world!  Nobody dared to speak.  We were in a magical place.

“Mom, we’re at the top of the world!” I whispered.

It is a strangely wonderful thing to view a 29,000-foot mountain from 30,000 feet. I felt like we were close enough to see the ice melt!  It was truly one of the most majestic things I have ever seen.

The tour guide ticked off the names of the mountains as we passed each one: “Nuptse. Everest. Lhotse. Makalu.” We took turns going up to the cockpit to see the pilot’s view, which was even more spectacular. Fluffy white clouds were nuzzled against the peaks, and the sky was azure blue. The mountains themselves were absolutely vast; you could actually feel how big they were.

Later, I tried to put that feeling into my music as I was singing, but I couldn’t make a sound that was both earthy and ethereal at the same time.

It’s been three years since I was on that little plane in the Himalayas. But I’ll never forget that breathtaking moment when we broke through the clouds. That memory helps me get through less beautiful moments.

I didn’t actually climb Everest, and I may never go trekking in the Himalayas. But I know those mountains personally, and I think about them often.

      Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
                     - William Wordsworth
                     "Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

Addicted to German

The German language is like coffee.

It tastes bitter at first, but it’s incredibly addictive.

To the English ear, it is not the most beautiful of European languages. But at least it has some bite!

This authentic picture of German coffee is provided by Research in Germany.

My grandfather was German and I was familiar with the sounds of German before I ever studied the language. I had the rare chance to learn German in an American high school, and it changed my life. German opens whole new worlds of opportunity, not only for engineers and business people but also for scholars and musicians! Still, it was not until I moved to Austria (at the age of 20) that I realized that German could be habit-forming.

Gutteral sounds are not the most pleasing to hear, but they are extremely satisfying to say!  And if you crave elegance, you can find it in German’s pure, round vowels. Best of all, the explosive consonants give the listener a special rhythmic pleasure that is absent from, say, French. German snaps and crackles and pops!

In my first few months in Salzburg, I let the German language seep into every corner of my mind. I limited my contact with my English-speaking friends and insisted on only speaking German to my professors and colleagues. All of my courses at the Mozarteum were taught in German and the lingua franca of the cafeteria was German. My brain adapted to my personal linguistic experiment.  By the end of my third year in Austria, I was thinking and dreaming in German.

The wonderful thing about thinking in a different language is that you start to think in different directions. You can’t help but have new creative insights!  This happens automatically when you use a different word order, or express your feelings with a different metaphor, than you would have used in your own language. You start to see things differently, not just from a different cultural perspective, but from a different linguistic perspective, as well.

My parents were a little alarmed when I first came home for vacation and had to search for English words. But it provided a lot of spontaneous humor at the dinner table.  Naturally, the brain adapts (again!) very quickly to conversation in its native language. And all of this brain exercise is very healthy; recent studies indicate that people who are bilingual have higher cognitive function and better long-term brain health.

Of course, I was studying music, and music has a way of getting under your skin. By singing German opera and German Lieder (art songs), I ensured that German would stay in my soul forever.  There is a deep beauty in German Romantic poetry that has been set to music.  Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

So why is German considered so difficult? It has a relatively small vocabulary, but a very sophisticated grammatical structure. That’s why German is not the easiest language for an English-speaker to learn, even though English is a Germanic language. I made a ton of mistakes while learning German — and I still do!

But now, I have a tender spot in my heart for German syntax. I even get nostalgic for the sound of the Austrian dialect. If I stay away from Austria for too long, I have to feed my German addiction by reading German novels and watching Austrian TV programs.

You may have seen this chart on Facebook.  It insinuates that German is not as pretty as other European languages. Which is true!!!

But German has its own crackling energy. So be careful the next time that you pick up a German book, or start talking to a German friend. German is extremely addictive.  You might just like it!

Auf Wiedersehen!