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

Full post at icadenza.com

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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"

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.   

The Fear of Flying Cellos

Life just got a little easier for traveling musicians.

Last month, the U.S. Congress passed a law that musical instruments qualify as carry-on luggage, and that musicians may purchase a seat for oversized instruments (such as cellos). See the full text of the law here.

Until now, each airline has determined its own policy.  But this leads to unnecessary stress and confusion before take-off.

As a singer, I don’t usually have to deal with this.  My instrument fits neatly in my throat!

Cello photo by Miroquartet

But on my way to Nepal in 2009, I panicked when I realized I would need to transport a flute, a clarinet, and a viola on an airplane.  These instruments had been donated to the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory as part of the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival, and I was responsible for them. I was terrified I’d have to put them in cargo.

My mother, who was traveling with me, threatened to wrap the viola in a baby blanket and carry it to Nepal on her lap.  She planned to tell the attendants that her baby was named Viola Feldmeth!  (That might have worked. My mom is very persuasive.) But fortunately, Thai Airways had no problem with our viola, and it arrived in Kathmandu in one piece.

The Canadian violist Paul Casey was not so lucky.  On a fateful flight in 2006, he was forced to check his $14,000 viola.  When he retrieved it at baggage claim, it had been crushed to pieces.

I recently heard a horror story about a cellist who purchased an additional seat for his instrument. It was very expensive, but at least he had the peace of mind of knowing it would be flying next to him. Then, as soon as he had strapped the cello into its chair, the airline attendant rudely told him to remove it. Shocked, the man tried to argue, until the pilot got involved. They finally forced him to put his cello in a closet.

Which makes you wonder, “why are people afraid of cellos on planes?”  Is this some kind of cellophobia (fear of flying cellos)? I mean, what’s a cello going to do at 30,000 feet? Pop a string?

Anyway, this type of thing won’t happen again.  Violists are now allowed to bring their violas aboard. And cellists have the freedom to spend a lot of money on a second seat. These are small victories, my friends, but important ones!

By the way, I think I’m going to produce an airplane movie. It will be a sequel to that horror flick, “Snakes on a Plane.”  I’m going to call it, “Cellos on a Plane.”

Traffic Jam in Kathmandu

I never thought I’d say this, but I actually miss Nepali traffic jams.

When I’m sitting motionless on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, I occasionally flash back to my experiences in Nepal.  And I think, “driving would be so much more exciting if I were back in Kathmandu!”

I never expected to travel to South Asia until my good friends at Hope Partnership Nepal started telling me thrilling stories about life in Kathmandu.  And then in 2009, I had an incredible opportunity to create the Kathmandu Music for Peace Festival, funded by Davis Projects for Peace and hosted by the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. I felt so privileged to visit that beautiful country and meet such wonderful people. It was the experience of a lifetime.

But my first taxi ride in Kathmandu left me feeling a little shell-shocked! Suddenly, I was at the mercy of my taxi driver; I felt like I was trapped in a video game, with all kinds of vehicles whizzing past (and honking) as we careened around tight corners.  I winced whenever I saw five people hanging off the back of a bus, or a baby strapped onto the back of a motorcycle. I instinctively held my breath whenever I thought we were going to smash into a van, a building, or a cow.

Now, I first learned to drive in the concrete jungles of Los Angeles when I was 16 years old — and that was stressful enough! — but nothing could have prepared me for Nepali traffic.

And yet, at the end of my first week in Kathmandu, the traffic started to feel normal. In fact, I developed huge admiration for Nepali drivers! Driving is an art form, and they have mastered it.  We always got where we were going, and we never hit anyone else (well… we didn’t hit them very hard). Best of all, I never saw anyone get angry; there was no “road rage.”

Driving in Kathmandu can be terrifying, but it is never boring. So just occasionally, when I’m stuck on the freeway in L.A., staring at the same old license plate for ten minutes, I get a little nostalgic for scenes like this: