Archive for the ‘Practicing’ Category

deanna’s got talent. or not.

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

I recently had breakfast with a dear friend. Someone I’ve know for many years. He’s made an incredible career for himself, particularly as a playwright and an actor, with a gorgeous singing voice to boot. At breakfast, I told him how through college, I envied him his talent–he seemed to get involved in so many things. A whole bunch of opportunities seemed to fall in his lap. But as I watched him develop as an artist, I quickly realized that while, yes, he is a gifted performer, he works his ass off. He seeks opportunity. He creates opportunities for himself. As I recounted this at breakfast, I thought I was being generous in noticing that his work ethic  equaled or exceeded his already considerable talent.

My friend’s response? “I don’t believe in talent.”

He went on to say that the idea of talent is a trap: talent suggests something innate. That those who are declared not to have talent should, or do, give up. Those who are deemed talented either get complacent or have the weight of producing genius every time they create. Nobody benefits from decrees of talent.


Then today I was in a wonderful vocal improvisation workshop led by David Hatfield–a warm and wonderful teacher from Vancouver here in Edmonton for the weekend. And I found myself remembering when I was first introduced to this style of improvisation (based on the work of Bobby McFerrin). Back then, I was shy, anxious, yet eagre to be seen and heard and found worthy. I didn’t know how to start an improvisation, didn’t know how to make interesting sounds, how to join in. I was afraid of, on the one hand, sounding terrible (possibly the worst outcome for a singer). But on the other hand, I was afraid I would attempt to show off and my vocal contribution would be ego-filled, not in service of the music emerging in the group. Even though I did really really want people to think I had something special, something extraordinary, I didn’t want people to think that I thought that. That would be gauche.

Welcome to the jumble of anxieties that filled my mind back then. Yeah, vocal improv was rife with anxiety, my brain running rampant over my creative and embodied impulses.

Today, I kept thinking about that introduction to vocal improv so long ago because today was so very different. I am much more comfortable improvising. I am comfortable in my own skin–largely because I like myself now. Through my work with Fides, I know my body and voice, and I’ve got tools now to help me enter into music, to listen, to follow my body’s physical gesture, or open my mouth and see what sound comes out and follow that. I kept exploring vocal improv over the last ten years, and learned to let go of trying to be a genius in favour of trying to be curious.  Also, I am also a better musician now from all of my conducting training, my performance experience, and my graduate studies. In short: I’m a better musician because of all the work I’ve done, and continue to do. My musical lines today were more complicated, more interesting. But at the same time, I’m totally happy to be a fool. To sound bad, sing wrong notes and stumble along. I’ve discovered that while singing made-up music feels so terribly risky, it turns out that nothing terribly bad happens when I sing a wrong note. I just keep singing until I sing my way into some more interesting notes.

Throughout the entire day, I felt grounded, present with others but not losing myself either. I wasn’t perfect by any means, and there were far more accomplished singers and bigger risk-takers in the group. But that fact was a gift rather than an insult: what an honour to learn from each singer, who came with varying levels of experience and who each gave something uniquely of themselves.

And now I really know, I KNOW, my friend’s point. Talent is a shallow way to think about how we engage in the arts. It suggests the start and end point are the same. “Talented” renders artistic practice into a Yoda-like tautology–you either are or you are not. But this is a false way of thinking that splits the world into artistic winners and losers.

In fact, artistic practice is about engaging in exploration, risk-taking, curiosity, and willingness to make something bad. Artistic practice is work, it is continual growth. Throughout today, I didn’t care whether I was talented. I only cared to sing and follow musical impulses. To sing in community. To learn from others. To find times to stand out and find times to support the musical excellence of others. Above all, to sing in service of the music.

Thanks, friend.


the politics of music, the music of politics; aka I’m on strike

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!

I am (finally, really, truly) close to finishing my ph.d. at the University of Toronto, but as a Teaching Assistant, that means I’ve been a part of the highly publicized CUPE 3902 Unit 1 strike. I have lots of political opinions but perhaps will share those in another post. What I will say here is that I’m pretty sure being on the picket line is the opposite of writing a dissertation in every satisfying way–lots of people, lots of walking (albeit in circles), being blunt clear about the message.

Perhaps what I’ve most loved about being on strike (yes, that’s right) is deciding what side I’m on and putting my body and voice out there to stand my ground (or walk my circle).  It’s really a remarkable thing to walk on a road and block traffic  in solidarity with your fellow workers/students. It’s more incredible to yell and sing. To take up sonic space as much as physical space. There was a moment in a large rally where the entire crowd sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ and while I can never sing that song without sounding quite terrible, I shout-warbled my way through the chorus, understanding solidarity in a whole new way. And music’s role in that.

I’m not sure how this strike will end, but I’m pretty sure it’s changed me.

And for your listening pleasure, two songs:

1) The CUPE Union Picketeers (Audio only) written and performed by the Picketeers, with apologies to Stan Rogers, for this strike:
“God damn them all! We won’t sign for 8K under the poverty line!”


2) but maybe you’re not a folkie. Maybe funk is more your style. How’s about this old gem that someone shared with me today by Union, called ‘Strike’:


it’s like falling off a cliff, over and over

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

The vocal pedagogy that I practice and teach mostly draws from the work of Fides Krucker. I just got back from a lesson with Fides, and through my vocal and pedagogical training with her, I’ve come to understand singing as an integration of contradictions that demands the quiet but complete bravery of leaping off a cliff.

In one of my first singing lessons with Fides, back in 2003, she was coaching me through a vocal slide, trying to get me to find air flow without pushing or straining the muscles around the vocal folds. She told me “it’s like you’re falling off a cliff, over and over, all the way through the slide. Feel yourself fall off a cliff about 3 times on the slide up.” That’s Fides for you. Don’t just fall once but THREE times. And singing with Fides IS like falling off a cliff over and over: scary, exhilarating, and continuously challenging no matter how much “progress” I make in my vocal work. There’s always something else to let go of.

Fides has developed a unique and to my mind highly effective vocal pedagogy that draws from two seemingly opposite traditions with results that far exceed the mere sum of both. First, she draws from the Roy Hart school of extended voice technique, primarily through the work of Richard Armstrong. This technique offers what Fides calls cathartic work. A kind of vocal exploration of voice that follows emotional and physical threads rather than seeking perfection and beauty in every note. Her particular version of extended voice technique invites in the cracks, frays, burrs, growls, skips, yells, whispers, and tremors. Further, students are encouraged to follow our bodies, let our intellects (along with our self-judgements) to take a back-seat and approach singing as though we’re not quite in control of the whole thing. How extraordinary to begin singing from a place of curiosity and exploration of the voice, rather than judging which sounds are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad.’ To figure out how my body naturally breathes, and learning to follow what my body already knows rather that what my brain thinks is smart or right or good.

At the same time, Fides has integrated core principles of bel canto technique, which, contradictory to what I just said, demands precision and a kind of mental acuity and control in vocal production. Bel canto, literally “beautiful voice,” is of the Italian tradition that underpins most operatic singing, and while the technique varies widely, it’s characterized by a pure, beautiful sound that balances the lower and upper registers in the human voice (Wikipedia offers a pretty decent overview of bel canto, as a starting place, if you’re interested). For Fides, bel canto technique offers the technical grounding to the extended vocal work, containing singers’ cathartic experiences within technical precision and sound research on vocology (how the voice works in the body). So while students might experience something like a psychological purge through extended vocal technique (and trust me, I have purged an awful lot through our lessons), our wild explorations are always put to service of vocal technique. We remain attentive to our bodies as instruments AND as homes of our hearts and minds.

This blend of two divergent singing traditions informs Fides’ work, yet her work exceeds a simple integration of previous disciplines. Fides demands singers (including herself) to engage contradictions in the embodied here-and-now of singing: technical precision and emotional intuition; mental acuity with body knowledge; learning to control with learning to let go. A kind of embodied dialectics. A clear confusion. A wild precision.

At my lesson today, Fides brought me back to that cliff metaphor. But this time instead of falling, I’m leaping off the cliff, making adjustments as I fall. I’ve given up control while controlling what I can. It’s been a big sustained jump, verging on a continuous freefall. At moments, it almost feels like flight.

Fides wouldn’t encourage students to take leaps that she herself wouldn’t take, figuratively and literally. Here’s a short film called “Opening Night” by Julie Trimingham from 2001 starring Fides with Richard Armstrong. The text on youtube describes the film as “an explosion and exploration of the moment –the breath taken– before the first note of an opening night performance is sung.” The film is a decade old, and Fides, true to her own form, has continued to deepen her own vocal and pedagogical practice by keeping herself on the edge of her own experience and knowledge through her practice and pedagogy, navigating that paradoxical line of heart and mind, life and art.


the joy and agony of performance

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Jen and Deanna dancing

Deanna teaches Jen to two-step

We just finished our two-night run of the east-end edition of the Undone Cabaret. It was, literally, a full house both nights.  Without suggesting that our performance was awesome, I would like to state that, in general,  house concerts are a wonderful thing.  The set-up is cozy, personal, and full of sparkle. It makes everyday living extraordinary, turning intimate personal space into a public performance space.

And houses are weird performance spaces. When Jen and I first performed the cabaret at a house concert in the West End, we were confronted with a space that simply couldn’t be set up as a traditional musical concert space, with audience over here watching the performers over there.  Audience members had to sit all over the room, almost facing each other.  We needed help to figure out how to perform in this space. Under the gifted direction of Fides Krucker, Jen and I stopped thinking of the house as a challenge to overcome and more as an opportunity to be inventive with how we performed this show. And so we sang in the kitchen. We sang on the stairs. We stood on sofas, and held on to basement door handles. By really using the house as a performance space, our little musical cabaret became a full performance that straddles theatrical performance and music concert.

me singing In the Still of the Night

"In the Still of the Night"

And this weekend’s performance built on that work.  I feel proud of what I accomplished. My performance wasn’t flawless. Man, dealing with performance nerves and production anxieties meant that my challenges were cut out for me.  There were moments, though, in both nights, where I got to that sweet spot of just fully inhabiting the music in the space. Just a few moments. But they were there.  The other moments were filled with the constant running internal narration, wondering if people were enjoying themselves, wondering if I should have reviewed the words to my next song, wondering if I could chicken out and not lie across strangers’ laps while singing. Does this happen to you when you perform?  How do you move yourself out of that space to be more fully present in the performance? I found that a few check-ins with my body and voice structure sometimes helped.  Like trying to keep my palate lifted and my tongue soft. Chin down.  Soft knees.  Another useful approach was simply to listen to what was happening. Pull my attention outside of myself, and really listen to Jen as she was singing, to Tania on piano, and Chris on bass.  Truly listen and let the sound drop into my body, discover how it affected me. To be fully present in the here and now.

These weren’t fail-safe techniques, but they sure helped. I did have a fantastic time overall!

Thanks to everyone who came out to see us perform. Thanks to Chris and Tania: it’s such a blessing to perform with such accomplished musicians. Thanks to my family, including my mom who flew in from Edmonton and was affixing labels to CDs all day Friday, and my partner who took care of the food and the space and our boys AND me. And above all, thanks to Jen, my singing partner and friend.  I never would have done this show without her and I never would have discovered as much about singing and performing without sharing this journey.

Stay tuned for the next iterations of the Undone Cabaret!

Deanna and Chris

Chris and Deanna

By the way, the pics here were taken by Matthew Piers at our dress rehearsal. (Thanks, Matthew!)

If you’d like to see a few more, check out “undone cabaret” on facebook and look for our August photo album.


making everything easier

Friday, June 25th, 2010

Last Saturday morning at breakfast, my 5-year-old was asking why my partner had to leave for the day.

“I’m going to campaign school,” my partner said (it’s election time soon in these parts).

My son thought about this. “Well,” he said, “if you’re going to school, there’s one thing you should learn first.”

“What’s that?”

“First, you should learn how to sing.  Singing makes everything easier.”

Singing makes everything easier!

After I stopped laughing, I started to consider the implications of this. Do I agree?

I’ve wrestled my fair share of singing demons. I’ve gone through long periods where singing felt awful. Or didn’t happen at all.  But I’m coming to a place where singing, which for me also means sinking into the present moment and my body, is a regular part of my life.  And singing might not make everything easier, but it sure makes everything worthwhile. When I’m engaged in a daily practice of singing, I find I enjoy gardening rather than avoid it. I love riding my bike. I want to connect to friends.  I find my family hilarious and wonderful. It’s like a someone put a bright filter on my life.

The trick is having a regular singing practice.

I’ve always struggled to have a regular practice. It’s easy to do when performances are lined up. It’s tough when I’m busy with not-singing things. Especially now that I’m immersed in academics, which despite being about music seems to be antithetical to making music (I’m avoiding writing a paper right now!). Yet, when I don’t sing frequently, I experience an opposite effect: there’s a gray filter on my life. I can’t focus. I ignore my body. I avoid my dirt-bomb of a house. I feel annoyed by the demands of my family.  It ain’t pretty.

Sing sing sing!  Even if it’s just breathwork for 5 minutes, or a couple warm-ups. It’s a start. It’s enough.

Maybe my son is onto something after all.

After my partner left for his day, I asked my son if he really believed singing makes everything easier.

“yep,” he replied, “especially campaign school.”

“Do you know what campaign school is?”

“yep. It’s where you learn how to fill the campaign tank for the barbecue.”