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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Superior Vocal Health

How do singers stay in peak vocal condition?

“Water, sleep, and good technique!”

That’s what I always tell my students. But what about throat sprays? Do they really work?

To be honest, I don’t trust every throat spray on the market. I’m skeptical of anything that claims to improve vocal quality. Even when I’m ill, I rely on my vocal technique to get me through a performance.  Technique is a singer’s first line of defense!

But there are days when your throat gets attacked by allergies, cold viruses, air conditioning, altitude and humidity. Is there a throat spray out there that can make those days a little easier? Yes, there is.

I’ve just discovered a line of all-natural products by Superior Vocal Health.  These organic herbal formulas were created by a professional singer, so they are specifically designed for singers. And they work.

1. Throat Saver (spray). Throat saver is a refreshing spray with a sweet, minty taste. It moistens the throat, reduces mucus, and boosts immunity. It’s safe enough to be used several times a day, in between rehearsals.

As a frequent flyer, I notice that my mouth gets dry after several hours on an airplane. So there is already a special place for Throat Saver in my flying pharmacy, the little medicine kit that travels with me whenever I get on a plane.

2. Sinus Clear Out  (tongue dropper application).  One April day, I woke up with a miserable headache behind my eyes. My nasal passages were swollen and painful. After putting two small drops of Sinus Clear Out on the back of my tongue, I was overwhelmed by the taste of horseradish and alcohol! But just 9 minutes later, my headache was completely gone. (It’s rare for any sinus medication to work that fast!) Within thirty minutes, my Eustachian tubes were clear and my nose was back to normal. Since I suffer from chronic sinus allergies, I was absolutely amazed. This is seriously good stuff.

3. Vocal Rescue (gargle). This gargle solution combines Turmeric with ginger and honey to soothe a sore throat.This is made for more serious conditions like laryngitis or tonsillitis. It can also save your voice from wear and tear during an intense performance schedule. But please do not swallow; Vocal Rescue is only to be used as a gargle.

Of course, this is great news for singers. But it is just as exciting for actors, professors, politicians, and for anyone who does a lot of public speaking. Just remember that everyone’s body chemistry is a little bit different, so you may react differently. I strongly suggest that you do not use any medication in a vocal emergency until you have first tried it on a non-performance day. But take the time to experiment with these formulas. I think you’ll find that they are safe and effective.

Personally, I’m very careful about what I put in my throat, so I might never have discovered these products if I hadn’t received free samples for the Globetrotting Soprano. But at $19.95, they are reasonably priced, and I have been genuinely impressed by the results. I’ll be buying more.

As a traveling opera singer, I need to stay in peak vocal condition. Most of the time, I can rely on my health and my technique.  But there are days when I need an extra boost, and that’s when it’s nice to know about Superior Vocal Health.

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.