Inner Self and the Voice

•March 21, 2012 • Leave a Comment

So in my lesson today we talked about chi (or ki, depending on if you ask my Chinese accompanist or my Korean professor). We spent a great deal of time talking about how our personal energy affects performance. It’s something I’m familiar with, having done a great deal of reading on various forms of mysticism both Eastern and Western, and being experienced in the theater arts, but it was interesting to hear all these things that I know but have never verbalized come out in a lesson like that.

H said that she thought I had a great deal of internal energy within myself, but that I keep it closed up. The word she used was “defensive.”  I think that is a startlingly accurate description, because I really do tend to shut myself off on the inside and isolate myself. Learning to be a real, serious musician is going to require me to shed the ice queen facade I’ve maintained so carefully and let my inner chi come to the forefront if I want to communicate it to the audience.

I’ve also got a lot of physiological things to pay attention to. Breath regulation from the gut is getting pretty natural, so now I need to focus on keeping the larynx free, the jaw relaxed, my posture straight without being stiff, my placement consistent… basically I’ve managed to fix one thing and now it’s on to the next 60 things I need to regulate (…but not regulate, because regulate implies rigidity and that’s one thing you don’t want above all else)!  I’m glad to say it doesn’t drive me nuts, because this is the kind of stuff I live for!


Duck and Cover

•February 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been away awhile, haven’t I? Sorry.

But on the other hand, two pieces of news. Well, three, technically, but two of them can more of less be lumped together.

Firstly, juries at the end of last semester went spectacularly well. Sang the Zueignung and O mio babbino caro and apparently did pretty well, since the overwhelming response to my performance was along the lines of “Why isn’t this girl a music major?”  Therefore, by popular demand, I have recently submitted an application to add music as a second major (which was always my intention, but I had meant to wait a semester more). Now it just depends on if they can work in an audition time for me this semester, or else use my jury this spring as an audition.

So that’s my first two pieces of news. The third is that in my lesson today, H went right to the heart of things and used that word that all female singers secretly (or not-so-secretly) want to hear: coloratura. As in, I have potential to be one.  She laid it out that right now, at the tender age of not-quite-20 but I round up I’m pretty much right on the borderline between lyric and coloratura voice and with discipline and proper training, I absolutely could sing coloratura repertoire, which is a relief because most of the best music and roles for mezzo- or, hell, for any female voice!- are coloratura roles.

Overall, good space to be in. But when all is said and done, I also know that I still have a seriously long way to go before I’m anywhere near where I want/need to be. Knuckle down is the word! And hopefully not go 5 months in between posts on this blog, next time…


•November 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment

You know, it’s funny.  Over the past few months since I really decided I was going for this thing, really going to be an opera singer, I’ve been kind of up and down on the whole idea. I mean, my determination to give it a shot never wavered, but my confidence in my ability to actually do it was on-again-off-again.  Right now, though, I have never felt more sure that I can.

That’s kind of a strange thing, because I spent the whole afternoon listening to different recordings of O mio babbino caro.  Renee Fleming, Maria Callas, Angela Gheorghiu, Montserrat Caballe (whose rendition, I am sorry to say, I did not like very much despite the tremendous respect I have for her in other roles), Lily Pons, pretty much the works.  Now, ordinarily when I hear professional opera singers doing their thing, I think “there’s no way in hell I can be an opera singer” because they’re at a point that is so far beyond where I’m at at present. Based on previous history, listening to all these recordings of professional singers doing a much better job of interpreting an aria I’ve been working on for going on three months should have thoroughly discouraged me.

Today, though… today was different. Today, I listened to Anna Netrebko singing Puccini, and something about it just sounded… right. Familiar.  I’ve long held Ms. Netrebko in extremely high esteem, she’s one of my absolute favorite sopranos currently performing, but only today did I realize that it was because I recognized a little something of my own voice in hers.  I don’t think I could have recognized it any sooner than this, though, really.  It’s only just now that my voice is starting to unlock itself, to really spread out and start to actually SOUND like an opera singer’s voice (not a very good opera singer, obviously, because I’m so far from professional caliber right now), but I’m starting to hear the pure qualities of my voice, what it really sounds like, and I’m finally able to define my voice more solidly, and recognize similar qualities in other singers.  And there’s just something about Anna Netrebko’s voice that seems so familiar to me.  That smokey color to her voice is something that I think is also present in my voice at times.  Still clear and sweet, but a little bit dark as well.  Useful for being able to create different characters, actually, because you can cast a little bit of a variation into your color.

I think I like that word I used: smokey. That’s a good word for it. Just a little bit of darkness, but not heaviness.  Kind of mezzo-y, but not really a truly mezzo quality.  That smokey color without the chestiness.  Which begins to make me wonder… am I a soprano?

Good God, my head’s all over the place, desperately trying to categorize my voice and failing pathetically.  There are times when I wonder, with as much weight as my voice seems to have sometimes, and the placement of my passaggios, whether I might not be a contralto, but I tend to disregard that because not only is it incredibly unlikely, but I just plain don’t think it’s true.  Of course, my voice is still young. I’m all of twenty, and there’s plenty of time for my voice to deepen.  But I don’t think it’s going to- not that much, anyway.  Most of the time, I’m 100% sure that I’m a mezzo-soprano. Hence the title of this blog.  But then there are times, like today, that I wonder.

On Wednesday, I discovered that I have a range up to at least an E-flat. God only knows how I managed to do it, I did some kind of funky placement thing that I’ve never tried before (I believe one would call it the flip up into the whistle range) and I was singing extremely high notes…. and they sounded good. Kinda thin, obviously, but solid and warm. So I fiddled around with the pitch pipe in order to figure out what note I was singing… and it was an E-flat.  I still can’t believe that happened, really. It was completely surreal.  And it got me thinking.  Yes, my voice is dark. In fact, one might use the word smokey.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I automatically fall under the category of mezzo-soprano.  With a range like that (especially if I actually manage to develop it to the point where that top range is usable), I could go either way.  I could be like Cecelia Bartoli, the mezzo-soprano with the range up to an E-flat, or I might just be a particularly dark-voiced soprano.

Who knows?  I’ve got at least ten years before I can really say for sure.  For now I’m going to stick with mezzo-soprano officially especially because it would be a huge pain to change the URL of this blog, but I may just call myself a soprano once in awhile for kicks (and also because it really annoys my friends when I remind them that next year they’re going to be sharing a townhouse with a soprano).  Regardless of the fact that nothing above a high A is sounding particularly good with any kind of consistency, the fact remains that the notes are there, and if they’re there, then they can be polished, and eventually will be good and consistent.

So yes. I am an occasional soprano, very confident in her ability to become a moderately successful professional opera singer, and it’s all thanks to Anna Netrebko.

Oh, and did I mention that last week I met Maestro Gregory Kunde?  I don’t think I did.  Sorry.  I’ll have to write an entire post just about that supremely fabulous experience!

Playing Catch-Up

•October 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I seem to have been away for some time, haven’t I?  If anyone’s actually reading this, sincerest apologies.  Part of that vanishing act I pulled was a result of my having a week-long battle with influenza, and part of it was due to that lovely syndrome known as “mid-semester blues.”  You know, you get sick, miss a week of studying, get paranoid that you’re going to fail all your classes, and though realistically you know that your GPA is very healthy and you’ve got a solid lineup of As and Bs in the offing, you kind of feel like you’re failing at college and sorta go into hiding for a few weeks except for your forays out to classes/food/reading Les Miserables for the eighteenth time…

Yeah, that’s been my life. It didn’t help that the being sick thing obviously screwed up my voice a whole lot even after I was healthy again, so H was kind of irritated with my lack of resonance. It’s not my fault, and she knows it’s not my fault, and I know she wasn’t really put out with me so much as with the flu virus, but it was kinda depressing to be letting people down.

But I’ve gotten back up to speed at last, and thank god for that.  As I write this, I just got back from my voice lesson, and I’m starting to sound pretty good again.  Still got just a little bit of a… I don’t know what to call it. Not a crack, or a quaver, because it’s not something that’s audible to anyone else (I know, because I’ve been recording my lessons and you can’t hear anything), but just… I guess maybe I would call it feeling not quite secure. It’s mostly in the middle range, funnily enough.

My favorite pitch right now is E5.  I’m loving the E5.  I can achieve perfect placement, soft palate raised perfectly and voice resonating in all the right places, on E5.  D and F aren’t too shabby either.  If I get any higher, my mental block thing I’m struggling with goes into effect and my throat closes up (I’m working on it, promise), and if I go much lower I get into that funny middle range from about F4 to C5 where everything is all stuck in my jaw and not resonating at all.

I’m also struggling with my tongue. H suggested I do the spoon-and/or-tongue-depressor thing. I smiled and nodded and immediately disregarded this.  I have it on extremely good authority from many reputable sources (including Mrs. A and at least two internationally-respected vocal pedagogues), that this is extremely dangerous if done incorrectly, as it causes tension at the root of the tongue which may lead to tension in the throat which can cause tears in the vocal mechanism which is the absolute last thing ever I want to have happen.  As an alternative, it’s looking like I’m going to be going back to some of the tongue exercises Mrs. A gave me to work with last year.

In other news, I’m singing my Strauss lieder in master class a week from tomorrow.  …yay?  Never done a master class before.  I mean, I’ve been to master classes, obviously. I’ve been present at each and every one that I’ve had to attend since I began the study of voice. But being an active participant, rather than a more passive observer/discussion contributor is a new thing. Needless to say, I’m very nervous.  I’m reassuring myself with the fact that, although I’m way behind many of the others in my master class in terms of technical knowledge and extent of study, I’ve got vocal beauty and a great accompanist on my side.  And, apparently, a strong Swedish accent to my German.  Thanks, Grandpa…  Here’s to hoping I can at least make a good first impression on this cadre of young baritenors (it’s a thing, okay?) as something besides that awkward quiet girl who sits to the side and applauds enthusiastically.

If I seem all over the place today, it’s because I am. It seems I’m trying to make up for nearly a month of absence in a single post, and let’s face it… that doesn’t tend to work out too well.  Eh, I can reassure myself by saying that, once again, at least it will make sense to me thirty years down the road.  Cheerio, dearies!

Weight Training

•September 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

So I just got back from my lesson.  Ran though V’adoro pupille a few times and drilled O mio babbino caro so much I think I might be able to sing it from memory at this point.  I’m exhausted, and I’ve had two realizations.

The first is that I’ve been focusing so hard on placement in this last six months, thinking so much about where to put the sound in my head, where the sound needs to resonate, that I’ve neglected the base of where the sound comes from.  I’ve been getting a smaller, thinner sound because I’ve been using a smaller, thinner air column.  My support has been coming from about the chest up, rather than from the absolute bottom of my abdomen up.  H starts pushing against my hands to get me to think about that “resistance” feeling, and suddenly my sound just opens up; it’s still breathier than I’d like it to be, but all of a sudden I’m just producing this big, round sound.  I’m going to really have to work on not focusing too hard on one thing or the other.  If I focus on support, my throat starts working a little too hard.  If I focus on placement, my breath support falls apart.  I can do one or the other rather well, the difficulty is going to be coordinating the two aspects.

The second thing I realized is that range is a lot like weight training.  Reaching for a high (or low) note is like moving up to a new level of free weights.  If an G5 is 20 lbs. in each hand, then an A6 is 30 lbs. in each hand.  Once you’re comfortable enough and strong enough to do the lower weights easily, you can move up to the next level.  And eventually you’ve lifted 30 lbs. enough that it becomes easy for you, and you’re strong enough for that, and you can move up to 40 lbs.  Of course, everyone has their limits.  Some people have the kind of body where eventually they’ll be able to lift  90 lbs. per hand or whatever, and some people can never get that far. That’s just how it is. Some people’s bodies are just built for different kinds of strength. The point is, with persistence and repetition, they get to the point that they are able to go to their physical limits.  In my case, the more I sing up on the high A, the easier it will eventually get and the more I’ll be able to open up and give that a round, beautiful tone.  And once I’m comfortable with that, I can start playing around with the B-flat… then the B… then maybe even the C, if I’m feeling up to it (though a C isn’t a necessity for a mezzo-soprano it would still be nice to have it there if I need it).  It will take months, maybe several years, how long specifically all depends on the amount of time I put in and the flexibility of the chords and other factors like that, but it will get to the point where I won’t need to worry about whether that B is going to sound thin and rough.

It’s a nice thought.

All topsy-turvy

•September 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Warning: this is an insecurity rant, which I will probably look back on in twenty years and laugh at.  I just ask that anyone insane enough to read it not laugh at me.

I tell you what, as gratifying as it is to say “I’m studying to be an opera singer,” at times it’s kind of terrifying.  I suppose that’s true of anyone going into the performing arts, really.  You hurl yourself in with no idea at all if there’s any chance of success (and I know how high the odds are against me, though they’re certainly better if I were going into contemporary musical theater or orchestral music or something like that), and when you’re as young as I am, it’s easy to get doubtful.

To be perfectly frank, I get very insecure sometimes, about my voice.  I have no doubts whatsoever about my acting skills. I’d like more training on that front, but I know that I naturally have a pretty decent amount of raw talent as an actress and all it really needs is honing (especially for opera, where the acting, though tremendously important, is second to the music).  The voice, however, is another matter entirely.

Realistically, I know I have a good voice.  Better than good, in fact.  My parents first started to notice that my voice was remarkable when I was seven or eight, or maybe even earlier, and it’s just gotten better since, obviously.  It’s horribly undertrained, but you know what? Dame Sutherland didn’t start studying the voice properly until she was 18, either. Our culture has an unhealthy obsession about doing things young but that’s a rant for another post. I’ve still got major issues to work through in the voice… but strictly speaking, I have better raw material than a lot of people.

And every time I start freaking out and thinking “Oh my God, I can’t do this!” I stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and tell myself two things.  First, that everybody gets insecure about their voice, and lower voices (mezzos, baritones, etc) in particular get the short end of the stick in the insecurity department. It’s typical.  Second, I remember what Mrs. A told me repeatedly when I studied with her last spring: singing is 5% physical and 95% mental.  I’ve been such an instrumentalist for such a long time that it’s hard to think of it that way, but at the same time I know it’s true.  I have a good physical setup, my pipes are arranged pretty well so to speak. Not perfectly, my voice will always be just a bit reedy I suspect (but that’s good for singing roles like Orlofsky or Cherubino or… well, basically any of the trouser roles, really, so it’s a help rather than a hindrance), but what I’ve got is better than what a lot of people start out with in terms of raw material.  The rest of it really all depends on my work ethic, my education, my dedication, my ability to really be a musician, etc.  My ability to go on and become an opera singer isn’t all-dependent on some mystical quality in my vocal chords that I can’t do anything about.  That, I’ve already got sorted just by being born.  The rest is all on me.  It’s within my control.  It doesn’t always feel that way, but it’s true.  And that knowledge is highly comforting.  A little bit terrifying, because I know if I screw up, it’s all on my shoulders… but I’m in control of where this goes from here, and that’s reassuring.  I’m in control here.

There’s one more thing I like to remind myself when I start wigging out like I sometimes do.  And that is to think about how much my voice has changed and improved and matured just in the last six or seven months.  You know what? If my voice keeps growing like it has, I’m going to have a huge voice someday.  And that is also a comforting thought.  ^_~



•September 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Well, H sent me a shortlist of pieces to be working on this semester. After reviewing them, I must say I was delighted. Suffice to say, she took my statement that I want to be an opera singer to heart, and got right down to it with the mega-hit famous aria bit.

I mean, really, does it get more famous than “O mio babbino caro?”

Yes, every soprano and most mezzos worth her stripes has warbled out O mio babbino at one point or another, but really, there’s a reason for that.  And yes, it’s pretty much the aria that every beginning soprano tries out their voice on as soon as they hit the “serious” part of their training (i.e. later years of high school or beginning years at uni), because it’s not hugely difficult (like, for example, something insane like Sempre libera) but still very beautiful and moving. But you know what? I don’t care. I’m gonna O mio babbino it up one way or another, and then I have a nice concert piece to add to my repertoire so that when I head back to my dinky little hometown in December, I can just pop that one out and watch the jaws of all the “she’ll never amount to anything naysayers drop in awe entertain my family during Christmas regardless of the fact that O mio babbino caro is about as un-Christmasy as it gets.

Other highlights on the list include V’adoro pupille from Handel’s Julius Caesar (Cleopatra seduction WIN!) and a handful of Strauss lieder which I look forward to digging into. We shall see if I can eradicate the Swedish accent from my German!

So… yeah. That was my day. Upon receiving the list, I’m pretty sure the girls in the dorm next door thought I was -ahem- “getting intimate” with someone due to my over-excited reaction, which in retrospect probably did not sound quite as much like the feelings childlike delight that prompted them as one would hope.

Or maybe that’s just me being paranoid.  (Really though, the girls next door have, in the 2.5 weeks I’ve known them, proven more than capable of letting their imaginations run away with them in that particular arena, so it’s entirely plausible for them to assume something so crass.)