Please Vote for Me in the SymphoNet Competition

Exciting news! I am competing in the SymphoNet Competition, a YouTube contest for young professional singers ages 18-35. Four Grand Prize winners, one from each voice type (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone), will each receive a soloist contract to perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the New West Symphony as part of its 2012-2013 Masterpiece Series season.

To vote for my submission:
JUST CLICK HERE, enjoy the show, and press your “like” button on YouTube. The singer in each voice type with the most “likes” by January 4, 2013 will automatically move on to the final round of judging!

If you read this blog, you know that German Romantic music is very close to my heart. One of my goals in life is to sing a glorious, heart-pumping rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with a brilliant orchestra! This could be my chance… Will you help me?

Cruising with Mickey Mouse

What could be better than sailing the high seas on a luxurious cruise with… your favorite cartoon mouse?

Last week, I enjoyed a dream  vacation aboard the Disney Wonder, cruising from Vancouver to San Francisco to Los Angeles.

This fantastic trip was completely unexpected. It all began a few weeks ago, when I got a phone call from my talented friend, Tiffany Sparks-Keeney. Tiffany and I are friends from way back, and her expert knowledge of kinesiology (and its impact on singing opera) will be the subject of many blog posts to come. But she wasn’t calling about work; she was asking me if I wanted to join her (and her adorable 9-month-old baby) on a 7-day cruise.  It took me about 3 seconds to say, “YES, PLEASE!”

This was my first cruise and I have to say that it was nothing short of amazing. There were three (yes, three!) swimming pools on the top deck. Because this was a Disney cruise, the entertainment was top notch. The cast and crew were fantastic, and we were treated like royalty the entire time. In seven short days, I got used to having delicious food and relaxing spa treatments. When it was finally time to disembark, I didn’t want to leave!

Sadly, there were no scheduled opera performances.  But on our final night, I got up on stage and sang “Vissi d’arte” to a very appreciative audience — I guess nobody expected Tosca to show up on a Disney cruise! 😉

I especially enjoyed the international flair of the cruise.  More than 50% of the guests were Canadian, but the crew came from all over the world. I had a chance to chat with new friends in German, Italian, French and Nepali. (I only remember a few phrases in Nepali, but I was able to use them all!)

Since I do a lot of my “globetrotting” for work, it was especially nice to have a relaxing vacation with a good friend.  Thank you, Tiffany! It was magical.

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

Outdoor Opera

Opera doesn’t only happen in opera houses.

Don’t get me wrong — I love opera houses.  When I lived in Italy, I embarked upon my own personal “Opera House Tour,” visiting famous opera houses from Milan to Palermo. I have nothing against sweeping staircases, painted ceilings, gilded ornamentation, glittering chandeliers and plush velvet seats. The acoustics in many opera houses are wonderful. And there is a special joy in singing to a house full of opera lovers!

But opera is a thriving and dynamic art form; it cannot be contained! People are singing opera everywhere these days: on lakes, in parking garages, and in Swedish living rooms. Travis Pratt even sings Rossini in elevators.

Personally, I love to sing outdoors. Some of my favorite concerts have been outside: on a Hawaiian beach, in a friend’s backyard, in the middle of the Sequoia National Forest, and in the courtyard of an ancient museum in Nepal.  I occasionally sing while kayaking and parasailing.

For me, there is something thrilling about singing to the ocean.  Last week, I went beach camping with my family near Santa Barbara.  It was a wonderful vacation, but I didn’t really have anywhere to sing.  So one afternoon, I hiked up on a a little cliff and sang Gershwin to the sea: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…” It felt great to sing in the open air.  And at the end of my aria, I was rewarded with applause from the beach below! My audience consisted of 1 snorkeler, 2 kayakers,  a few hikers, and several seagulls.  Spontaneous concerts can be fun.

Opera is everywhere. 🙂

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

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.

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

Full Post at iCadenza

the White Nights of St Petersburg

Here in Los Angeles, the sun will set over the ocean at  precisely 8:02 PM this evening. I’m sure it will be spectacular.

But in St Petersburg, Russia, the sun will not set until just before midnight. When you are that far north, summer days never end. June is a magical time in St Petersburg, when nighttime only lasts a few hours, and the darkness isn’t very dark.

Back in June 2007, I got to experience the famous “White Nights” of St Petersburg. I was in Russia to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, an unforgettable experience.

But since my father had been invited to St Petersburg as a  guest professor, I decided to go there first. After all, this was my chance to experience the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, and the Mariinsky Theatre. Like any musician preparing for a major competition, I would spend several hours a day practicing… but why stay home when I could just as easily practice my music in this glorious city?

Instead of just singing Tchaikovsky arias, I got inside them. I stood at the very place where Liza throws herself into the river Neva in the final act of Queen of Spades. I sang inside a Russian church. I practiced reading the Cyrillic alphabet as I walked around the city, slowly sounding out words like интернет (internet) and ресторан (restaurant).

I strolled down Nevsky Avenue almost every day, visiting every cathedral and every shopping mall. I took a canal cruise. I saw DaVinci’s Madonna Litta at the Hermitage. I went to Dostoyevsky’s house. I attended the Kirov ballet. I toured the czar’s Summer Palace.

But there was one thing I still had to do: I desperately wanted to see a Tchaikovsky opera at the Mariinsky Theatre. I had tickets for Eugene Onegin.

I was staying with my parents in a little budget hotel called the Vyborgskaya. We were living in cramped quarters and it wasn’t very clean.  It had been an especially hard day; my dad had injured his foot, so walking around town was not very comfortable. We’d had to wait in long lines to buy subway tickets, and whenever we finally got to the front of the line, the clerk would pull out the “technological difficulties” sign and disappear! I was also feeling a little queasy because I had eaten a questionable meat pie at a local bakery. But I was still looking forward to the opera.

When we got back to the hotel, we were informed that we had to change rooms unexpectedly.  The maids had already begun to move our luggage out into the hall to make room for another guest! Meanwhile, we had been assigned to an even smaller room, featuring three little cots and one coffee table. There was no time to be outraged about any of this because in all the confusion, we were now late for the opera.

We stood outside the hotel in despair, trying to flag down a taxi at rush hour.  Finally, a friend asked us if we would be willing to take an “unofficial” taxi. We shrugged and said yes. Our friend told the driver to take us to the opera house… as fast as possible. And that’s how we ended up climbing into a strange unmarked car.

Before we could fasten our seat belts, the car sped off with a screech of tires. Our driver zigzagged around corners and through intersections at breathtaking speed. I had never flown across a suspension bridge that fast. (Of course, I had not yet experienced traffic in Kathmandu.) We were speechless, but this pirate taxi driver took his assignment very seriously: he had been told to get us to the Mariinsky as fast as possible. And he did.

We were dizzy when we got out of the car, but we did make it there on time.  The driver was grinning from ear to ear. We gratefully handed him some extra rubles for his race car skills. Finally, we stumbled inside the gorgeous auditorium with its rich interior and blue plush velvet seats.

And the music was electrifying. What could be better than hearing a Russian orchestra play Tatyana’s letter scene? I don’t think I can describe the sound of the violins surging with perfect Slavic passion. There are no words for that. It was an exquisite performance.

And even after all of that, we still made it back to the hotel well before sunset. I remember the sunlight shining on the river as we drove back across town.

So whenever June rolls around, I always think about the White Nights of St Petersburg… and my wild ride to the Mariinsky!