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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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.

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

Full post at www.icadenza.com

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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.

Accidental Genius

Everybody wants to be a genius. But creativity is so hard to predict.  Most creative ideas seem to happen by accident.

So… how can we have more creative accidents?

The key is to create a dangerous environment.

I’m not talking about physical danger, although that might get your creative juices flowing. I mean artistic risk.

Personally, I need a space where I can play around with my creative ideas, where I’m not afraid to crash and burn. For me, this is usually a music studio. For you, it could be a laboratory or a gymnasium or a library or even a cubicle. Any space where you can approach your project with a bold sense of adventure.

Geniuses don’t play it safe. The most creative people I know are pretty comfortable with risk.

My brother-in-law has a fairly exciting brain. Rocket science isn’t terribly challenging for him. Even in college, he was able to imagine and produce projects of staggering creativity, but he usually injured himself in the process! This led his Harvard friends to call him a “genius of sorts,” and the nickname stuck.

This fearlessness is just as important in music as it in science. The best jazz musicians I know are great improvisers because they are not afraid. They invent great music on the spot because a) they’re good musicians and b) they’re not afraid to fail.

Creative minds maintain a curious balance between discipline and playfulness. In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reports that while most great thinkers work grueling hours, the “incandescent flash” of inspiration usually happens when they finally relax and take a hot shower.

For some reason, creativity requires both work and play. The best thinking happens in the space between the two. That’s where the insight lives.

The practice room is probably the least glamorous location in an opera singer’s life. But that’s where we spend a big chunk of our time. And that’s where a lot of the magic happens.

Say it’s Tuesday night at midnight in New York City. You’re alone in your sound proofed practice room. You are singing along as you bang out some chords on the piano and suddenly — unexpectedly! — something amazing happens. Music pours out of you, more vibrant than ever before.

Then two weeks later, you’re on stage in New Haven, singing the same music, and you are flooded with fresh creative energy.  Why? Because you practiced. You actually practiced getting inspired.

It’s not really an accident.  Not really. But it feels that way.

Inspiration is completely unpredictable. You can’t know if and when it’s going to happen. But it’s much more likely to happen if you’re ready and waiting.

So if you need a creative boost, just find an “accident-rich” environment and spend a lot of time there. Somewhere down the line, you might have a stroke of genius.

The Art of Getting Discovered

Exciting news! Over the next few months, I will also be blogging for iCadenza.

iCadenza is a magnet for fresh talent. Their mission is to empower classical musicians to survive and thrive.

So if you need an extra shot of creativity and inspiration, check the iCadenza blog. I am joining a fantastic team of bloggers. We’ll be talking about the artist life: the joy of music, what it takes to be a musician, and how we can give our audience (YOU!) more access to our music.  My first post went live this morning: Blogger Profile Lindsay Feldmeth    Please stop by!