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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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):