In between gigs, in between boyfriends, in between cities, in between days, I just like to write.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How Learning to Sing Can Teach Us to Live

Photo: M. Gulich

Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. 
Those are the five essential steps in singing. Sounds simple enough, and yet, after 20 years of voice lessons and over 10 years of singing opera professionally, I am far from being perfect. With each practice session, I have worked towards perfecting these five steps, so that I may produce my sound more beautifully and efficiently. In the process I have begun to realize that these five steps can be applied in many facets of life.
Whether you’re standing on the stage singing high C’s, or sailing the high seas on a fishing boat, whether you’re going for your black belt in karate or belting out a show tune on Broadway, mastering these five steps can make the song and dance of anybody’s life more melodious. 
Even before you begin to sing, even before you take that first breath to enable you to sing, you have to think. Am I singing an A vowel, or an E? An O or an U? Or how about an I? Each one of these vowels requires a different position in the mouth. What is the mood of the phrase I am about to sing? It could be joyous or triumphant, disastrous or tragic.
Maybe you’re going to confront your boss today about that raise you’ve been asking for. If it’s raining, you consider taking an umbrella with you. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for the task at hand.

To sing a musical phrase, I need to ascertain just how much breath is required to sufficiently sustain the voice throughout. Too many breaths can be just as detrimental as too few. So, I portray my emotion, form my mouth in the shape of the vowel, progressively contract my internal intercostal muscles in combination with my oblique abdominal muscles -- I mean, breathe -- and start the process of singing.
Breathing is something we do subconsciously. To be aware of the breath, however, is to live in the moment. Managing the breath gives you more control over the present situation -- before diving into a pool, calming ourselves down when we’re nervous or upset. A simple breath works wonders.

When I inhale, my vocal cords move apart (abduct), and when I begin to sing, they come together (adduct), and that precious moment between those two junctures is called suspension. It’s when the muscles work together in opposing directions to set the vibratory cycle in motion. Dynamic Equilibrium. It sets everything up for success. 
Without suspension -- well, let’s just say a slack tightrope is every funambulist’s nightmare. It’s the suspenseful (pun intended) moment when the acrobat takes her first step on the highwire with her frilly umbrella in one hand and concentration in the other. It’s the exact point in which gravity takes over, forcing the ball you just threw straight up in the air to come back down again. It’s the instant in which you activate your leg muscles in order to parachute out of a plane. It’s the moment of turning the door knob (after you’ve taken a deep breath, of course) to walk in your house and tell your spouse that you didn’t get the raise. The point of no return.

This is it. This is the moment you’ve spent an entire nanosecond preparing for. Noise is emanating from your body. You are phonating. You are singing. You are alive. You’re flying in the air, you’re under the big top above a cheering circus audience. You’re having that conversation.
Sustainment of tone is life itself. It’s how and what you do with it that counts. Think of the hamster running in his wheel. If he stops, even for a split second, he loses his momentum and it’s all over. All that preparation for naught. So sit back, enjoy the sound of your voice, and don’t stop until you...

No matter whether I taper off a phrase gingerly or finish with a smashingly loud consonant, swoon for a smelly tenor or skip offstage with the ballet, there’s only one thing I must do to release a tone: breathe. Sound familiar? You got it. With a fleeting moment to think about the next phrase, the whole process starts all over again. 
Releasing a tone is a wonderful opportunity to recover from all that has gone before. Each successive breath offers a new chance to improve, or even to fail. Louder, faster, softer, slower. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. This microcosmic phenomenon of five steps containing practically everything anyone really needs to know, occurs hundreds of times within any one opera before the conductor puts down his baton, and millions and millions of times within any one lifetime before joining the choir invisible. Hopefully. 
Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release....

This is a reprint of an article which already appeared in June 2009 on my opera blog:
 Christine's Voice

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Almost Heaven: A Family's Tale of Travel Scrabble

Every time my mother calls me by my sister’s name, I get 25 bucks. We’re not even twins; in fact, there are 8 years between us, but still my mother can’t seem to keep it straight. My brother doesn’t have this problem, of course, being the only boy, but somehow, my sister always retains her identity. Why is this? Is it because I’m the youngest? Am I Mom’s least favorite? I’d venture to guess it’s simply because I live the farthest away. When I was visiting in May of 2009, I “earned” $100 by this method. We were all convened at my mother’s house to face what we thought would be the imminent passing of my grandmother.
Hearing the serious tone in my otherwise flippant mother’s voice when she called, we agreed I’d better get on a plane and go home. I immediately searched the internet for a ticket, finding one in less than 30 minutes for 400 euros. (Note to self: don’t ever worry again about booking flights in advance, because the cheapest tickets are to be found the day before departure.) So, less than 24 hours after the phone call telling me Grandma was in bad shape, I was sitting with my brother and mother on her front porch in rural West Virginia - almost Heaven - drinking a glass of Merlot, listening to the tree frogs chirping. 
When I visit my Mom, there’s no staying in my old room, or discovering that said old room has been turned into the office. “The House I Grew Up In” is a foreign concept to me. Although I did spend a short stint of childhood living in W.Va., I grew up in four different houses in Tucson, AZ before moving out in 1988.  My two siblings and I haven’t resided under the same roof since 1980, and even then, their rooms were back in the “guest house” -- a typically Tucson architectural phenomenon -- separate from the main house where I lived with my then still married parents. Every time we do manage to get all three kids together, we have a feeling akin to summer camp, when you finally get to see your friends you’ve been missing during the school year. But even more so, it seems like a vacation, and yet also like coming home, although the places we meet are seldom anywhere near West Virginia.
While my brother and I were helping Mom move Grandma’s things into her new nursing home, my sister was commencing her 11-hour haul from Iowa City in a Honda Civic. We loaded all of what was left of Grandma’s things in my brother’s truck -- a lazy-boy chair, a bookcase, a small table, some clothes, some pictures, toiletries and a few plants.
A few years ago, she had moved from her own home into a so-called personal care home because day-to-day tasks like cooking and getting dressed became increasingly difficult. Already then, my Mom was divvying up Grandma’s things. It felt very strange to stake a claim on mere objects when the woman was still very much alive. I could only think of one thing I would want -- a round green leather ottoman. To see it today, it seems to be just the footstool that it is. But as a little girl, I spent hours climbing all over that thing, turning it on its side and rolling over top of it, using it as an important structural element in building forts and hideouts. Today, my little niece and nephew also recognize its versatility. They used to fight so much over who got to play with it, that eventually, Grandma had to lock it up in the closet whenever they came over.
Sibling rivalry never really existed in my immediate family. I can’t speak for my brother and sister, of course, being 7 and 8 years younger than them, respectively. I’m sure as toddlers and teenagers they must’ve had their tiffs, but today, as my mother forks over the cash as payment for calling me “Cheryl,” they laugh it off without a hint of bitterness. During our Scrabble game my brother did confess, however, that he used to hate it when Grandma would ask him to let me win at games. We would spend every summer at her house. There were trips to Kings Island Amusement Park, fishing in the pond next to my Grandma’s house, playing cards with the aunts and cousins.... Then as my brother and sister got older and I started going off to Summer Music Camp, visits to Grandma grew fewer and far between, and rarely could we all make it at the same time.
Arriving at the new nursing home with even less of my grandmother’s things, I was anticipating the worst. I wasn’t sure if she’d recognize me, if she’d even be conscious. Much to my surprise, she was up and in her wheelchair, and her pale blue eyes lit up when I walked into her room. Compared to the set up at the personal care home, which wasn’t exactly the Hilton either, her shared room in the nursing home was far from cozy. Putting the lazy-boy in there was out of the question, and setting up a corner where Grandma could have access to everything she might need - the remote control, her crossword puzzle book, her hairbrush, her notepad - was out of the question. Nevertheless we managed to salvage some of her dignity and at least put a few pictures on the wall. We reluctantly left her there with her absent-minded roommate after a hard day’s work to return to the tranquility of my mother’s front porch. Almost Heaven.
Anticipating my sister’s arrival, my brother, mother and I poured ourselves another glass of wine and began a round of Scrabble. We heard her car pull up just in time for her turn. This is an indispensable activity every time we come together, and has been ever since I can remember, so my sister wasn’t at all nonplussed when we skipped “Hello” and said “It’s your turn.” Despite having sat in a car for the better part of the day, my sister took her seat at the Scrabble table, played her word in stride and ended up winning. Not only is her timing impeccable, but her vocabulary as well. We managed to play a few games before falling into bed, reminiscing about the seldom times we were all three together:
The previous reunion had been almost a year prior in Tucson for my father’s 70th birthday. Since his place isn’t really that spacious, we rented a house at the foot of the mountains to the north of the City and were reminded of just how amazing the desert is (dare I say it? Almost Heaven). But because Mom wasn’t there, there was a definite lack of Scrabble - I think only one or two games. The time before that was in a small town in northern Bavaria called Coburg where I had been working. My mother, brother, sister and her girlfriend came to see me in an opera. We went down to my favorite pub on several occasions to get our Scrabble fix. A few years prior it was on the Isle of Wight in England, and this time my brother’s wife joined in on the fun. She had surprised us with her Scrabble skills a while back when we were all in a cabin in those same mountains north of Tucson. It was at their wedding in North Carolina when we played a round of speed Scrabble, making Grandma time our moves. My graduate recital at the University of Washington in Seattle brought us together the year before that, when we somehow managed to all sleep in my basement apartment. There, we played Scrabble in the cafe where I worked, where the walls were paneled with 18th century French pine. The most exotic place we’ve played Scrabble had to be at the bottom of the Grand Canyon - now THAT is almost Heaven.
After my sister’s arrival and a good night’s sleep, the three of us went over to the nursing home in the morning to pay Grandma another visit. My sister was a little nervous, because she had surprised Grandma last year at her 90th birthday party, and she hadn’t recognized her. Grandma had no trouble recognizing her this time. She was only baffled that the three of us were all together. It is after all, a rare occasion, and I think she suspected that we were there to possibly say goodbye to her. 
My sister and I had both packed a black dress and my brother packed his best suit, expecting our Grandma to pass away. She wasn’t nearly as bad off as she had been, but she was very unhappy about having to be in this nursing home, yet she knew that there was not much to be done about it. We visited her on several occasions between going bowling and going out to dinner. We took her out into the sunny courtyard of the nursing home, away from the mixture of smells and sounds unique to such a facility. On our last visit, we didn’t manage to get a Scrabble game going, but on the adjustable table in her room, we played a round of dominoes. Anything to get her mind off her pain. Grandma won by a landslide. 
Much to everyone’s surprise, Grandma lived through that week. And the next, and the next. My mother, who possesses a healthy dose of Wanderlust, was afraid to travel very far for very long, for fear of not being there when the time would come. After a couple months, however, the itch to travel overcame her, and she and my brother and sister came to Germany for a week to see me singing the role of Gilda in Rigoletto. The three of them played many a round of Scrabble in the hotel on my sister’s iPod Touch, although we prefer to play on the old-fashioned board with wooden tiles. But in these modern times on the go, one has to adapt. I was quite busy with rehearsals and my energy was taxed, but I managed to join in on a few games. I can’t imagine that I won any, but my premiere was a big success.
Because of my work schedule, I couldn’t make it back home for a visit until the end of January - more than six months after we thought Grandma wouldn’t make it through the week. I was there for several days, and it was much like it had been in May. We would go see her for a little bit, then we would go home, have dinner and play Scrabble. Unlike the previous visit, however, Grandma was hardly able to recognize us now. Her voice trailed up as she introduced my sister and I to the nurse as her nieces, as if she was phrasing her answer in the form of a question like on her favorite game show, Jeopardy. Oddly enough, when we were showing her snapshots of olden days, she recognized me on many of the photos. I kind of felt like I should give my sister the $100 that I got from my mother for calling me by her name. 
I guess it was pretty clear that this would be the last time I would see my grandmother alive. It was my mother who had to carry the burden of checking up on her day in and day out for the six months that followed - more than a year after we thought she wouldn’t make it through the week. Not only for that reason did I think to myself, ‘Go into the light already, Gladys!’ But I also knew, if Grandma were to pass on during the run of my summer performances, there would be no way for me to get away and come home. She picked the day after my premiere to finally let go.
I have yet to see my brother and sister since then, but I’m hoping that another visit for a premiere could be in the works. I managed one trip to Tucson in October to go hiking with my mother, who has meanwhile moved to North Carolina to be a grandmother to my brother’s two kids. After all, someone has to teach them how to play Scrabble.