Posts Tagged ‘singing’

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.

huh.

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.

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Pete Seeger: The Man of a Million Small, Powerful Actions

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

So Pete Seeger passed away on Monday at the age of 94. I, like so many millions of people, have been deeply affected and influenced by his music and his commitment to building a more just world through music. I never met him, but I have had the pleasure of singing and teaching his music. I frankly don’t have much to say that could add to the many amazing tributes that have been published, from the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and the CBC, to name just a few.

There’s a fantastic documentary on CBC’s program Ideas that lets you savour Pete Seeger’s music and ideas through his own voice. Definitely worth spending an hour to listen, if you are at all interested or curious about the man’s music and his ideas and experiences.

In 1993, Pete published a booked called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singalong Memoir.” This book has been deeply influential to me in my teaching, my repertoire, and my thinking about the social embeddedness of music. While he doesn’t explicitly focus on pedagogy, I’ve learned a lot about teaching through this book: how to piece together songs, how to contextualize songs through a wonderful combination of history, social, cultural and economic analysis, and personal connection. I love how, all through the book and the song transcriptions, he gives tips on how to involve everyone in singing. I can get behind anything that inspires a culture of singing.

I leave you with this story, as told by Pete in the Ideas documentary. It’s also in the book, but I love this particular version. It’s a story about the power of many people doing many little things. He doesn’t say here, but I know, from his other writings, that singing together is one of those small, mighty acts:

“I’m convinced that if there’s a human race here in a hundred years, it’s going to be millions upon millions of little things that save us. There’s a story I tell: imagine a seesaw and one end of the seesaw is on the ground because it’s got a big basket half-full of rocks. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air: it’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. Some of us got teaspoons and we’re trying to fill that basket of sand. Most people are kind of laughing at us, scoffing, “yah, people like you have been trying for thousands of years but it’s leaking out of the basket as fast as you’re putting it in. You’re wasting your time.”

But we say no, we’re looking close. It was a little less than a quarter full and now it’s a little more than a quarter full, and we think that one of these days, that basket is going to be more than half full. We’re watching it closely, and that whole seesaw will go zzzoooooop! In the other direction, and all around the world, they’ll say “gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons.

[…] These small little things…the powers that be can break up any big thing that they want. They can attack it from the outside, they can infiltrate it and corrupt it from the inside, they can co-opt it. But what are they going to do about ten million little things? They don’t know where to start. Break up three of them, four more like it start up.”

Thanks Pete, for doing millions of little things and encouraging us to do our own little things to make the world better.

ADDENDUM: Someone pointed out to me a great article from Canada’s online news site rabble.ca about Pete Seeger, focusing on his participatory approach to music performance. Dig this lovely quote from Pete: “I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Read the full article here.

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my ‘choir’ is performing tonight

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

I’m in a ‘choir.’ I have a hard time telling people I’m in this choir without putting quotes around the word. Because you see, it doesn’t look anything like any choir I’ve ever seen or participated in. If your definition of choir is a group of people singing together, then yes. We’re a choir. But after that, us and most other choirs depart ways.

You’re probably familiar with a typical choir: people arranged in rows according to voice type, facing a conductor and singing multi-part scored music. I’ve sung in these kinds of choirs, and I’ve directed versions of these choirs, and I love these choirs. I’ve been a part of choirs that have broken some of these traditions too, which I also enjoy.

But THIS ‘choir’, initiated and led by Fides Krucker (a strong influence in my singing and teaching, as you might already know), is a totally different animal. It has about 10 women in it. We meet in her living room, generally stand in something loosely resembling a circle, and begin with breathwork, sighs, yawns. We spend some time on vocal slides. We make eye contact with each other. We move around. We stand our own vocal ground while at the same time listening to each other, stealing sounds and gestures from others that we are drawn to.

Then we sing some songs. Mostly pop songs. Mostly in unison. Fides focuses on what she calls ‘vocal texture’—the individual and collective timbral quality of our singing voices demanded through the emotional and vocal journey of each song. For me as a singer, there is a palpable kind of emotional intensity through this approach to collective singing, whether it be joy or anger or sorrow.

It’s a pretty extraordinary thing, this ‘choir.’ At least participating in it is extraordinary. I don’t know yet whether it’s extraordinary to watch because we haven’t performed for an audience yet. Although we have had ‘performances.’

And these ‘performances’ might in many ways be the most extraordinary thing about this ‘choir.’ The ‘performances’ have all taken place at Ernestine’s–a women’s shelter in Toronto. We cram ourselves into a tiny room lined with green couches and a deliciously out-of-tune piano, replete with a few broken keys. And what makes it not-quite-a-performance is that the women of the shelter are invited to join in rather than just watch. In fact, the ‘choir’ sits among the residents on those horrid green couches. We all warm up together, and learn a song together. It’s more like a rehearsal or workshop. Except half of the women haven’t sung much, there are three interpreters, and children run in and out of the room constantly. It’s remarkable, because the ‘choir’ isn’t there to perform nor is the ‘choir’ there to use music as a tool to fix or improve anyone. We are all there working together, on our own and our collective vocal journeys.

If this is a choir, I want me lots more.

We have our first performance tonight at a fundraiser for the shelter. The women of the shelter will perform a song with us. We’re going to sing songs in various locations throughout the evening—outside by the fountain, lining the hallway, around a fireplace, and yes, even on the stage. It’s going to be a blast. I wonder what an audience reception of this ‘choir’ will be? I’m nervous and excited to find out. I’ll let you know…

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looking back, looking forward

Friday, January 11th, 2013

Hey there.

So it’s 2013. Where did last year go?

2012 brought so much live music into my life, and I drank it all up like a thirsty man finding water in the desert. I have two young kids, so getting out of the house at all, let alone seeing tons of live music, is nothing short of manna. I went to Hillside Festival in Guelph, and to the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, in, well, Edmonton. Got to see Merill Garbus and the incredible tUnE-yArDs (watch this video for a sample of her crazy/raw/fun aesthetic), and I fulfilled a life-long dream of seeing kd lang perform—my expectations were high and she blew them away. Oh, and Leonard Cohen! He was unbelievably amazing. It’s been a big year for seeing live acts. And so much of it was so inventive, I felt really fired up listening to these exciting boundary-crossing kinds of musical works and performances.

Professionally, I was also extremely lucky to conduct Echo Women’s Choir in the Spring of 2012—a fantastic group of 80 women from various backgrounds and professions, all coming together to sing some pretty wonderful and at times pretty challenging songs from many singing traditions. The honour of conducting Echo was one of the two professional highlights of my 2012.

The other was the growth of my singing studio—some new students came in last year that have just been incredible to watch and work with. And students who have studied with me for longer all seem to have found newer and deeper growth in their vocal journeys this past year. I’ve learned so much from my students, and am so proud of what they’ve accomplished, and inspired by their willingness to risk and put themselves out there.

So in many aspects a good year for music. But still.

I miss singing.

Watching all that music and watching the work of my students gave me lots of ideas for some musical projects moving forward. Now that I’m in the throes of my dissertation work, I hesitate. Do I have enough time to take on another project, in addition to being a student and a teacher and a mom? I’m not sure but I think I have to try. I think my first order of business is upload some clips from my 2010 cabaret ‘Undone’ with Jen Cook. I was proud of that work, and I think I’m ready to share it, or at least pieces of it, with the world.

Next, deciding which musical project to start with. Stay tuned…hopefully by summer I’ll have something more to say here. I guess this is my New Year’s Resolution, though it feels like more. A commitment to singing, my own passion. But here it is: in 2013, I’m going to work towards more performance.

And may I be so bold as make a request of you for 2013? Go see live stuff. See some live music. See a play. See a dance show. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on big ticket concerts and broadway-style plays. In fact, it’s in many ways better to see the band at your local pub, or see the innovative work of your local theatre companies. Nothing compares to the live experience, not even in the digital age of facebooking and tweeting and youtubing. You have to be there.

OK, 2013. Bring it on.

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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.

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if i collapse onstage, just drag me off and keep singing

Monday, October 18th, 2010

last night I saw a documentary about an incredible group of singers: young @ heart. I was in the library with my kids, and my two-year-old pulled the DVD off a library shelf and handed it to me saying “der you go!”  Seemed like a sign, so I took it out and watched it.  I laughed and cried.  I was inspired and challenged.

If you’re not familiar with the doc, it’s about a  chorus of seniors in Massechussetts that sings surprising repertoire.  Surprising in the choices (80-yr-olds singing Sonic Youth? The Ramones? David Bowie?) and surprising in how poignant and appropriate and fresh the songs become through their performance and interpretation. Through their very voices.

My favourite song (although it was darn hard to choose) was “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.  I’d like to embed the video for you, but can’t–maybe due to copyright?–so please. Take a sec, and click on the link and watch it now, then close the window and come back to me:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wgrM-R6yfY

Wasn’t that AWESOME?  I don’t know about you but there was so much that I missed in the words of the original that were striking here…”We know what we’re knowing but we don’t know what we’ve seen”  and “we’re not little children and we know what we want”.  And dig the arrangement–the solo voice and chorus completing each other’s sentences and thoughts.  Individual and collective, continuous and disjointed.  And what a brilliant mix of instruments–piano, accordian, violin, drums. As Steven Holden of the New York Times wrote about Young@Heart’s rendition of Stayin’ Alive, their perspective infuses urgency into the music and lyrics:

Sung by people approaching the end of their lives, the song is no longer about strutting through the urban jungle with your elbows out; it is a blunt survival anthem. These singers, most of them well- rehearsed amateurs, refuse to go gently into that good night. For them music is oxygen.

I was inspired on several levels.  First on the front that I imagine many people felt…a “wow! if they can do it at THEIR age, I can do anything I want! It’s never too late!”  And this is true, I feel hopeful that my getting older doesn’t necessarily mean growing useless, as our society seems to assume about ageing. But the movie’s focus on seniors, whose stories are rarely considered by people related to them, let alone features of movies, makes this an exceptional topic.  Turns out we never stop wanting to belong, to make contributions, to be creative, and to have our art and consequently ourselves, taken seriously. My grandma and grandpa were in a residential home for the last few years of their lives. It was like a purgatory. A waiting station till death.  How much different would lives be if as we grew older, we knew we could continue to be valued, contributing members to social and musical scenes?

There’s an urgency to the singing–death is near for a chorus whose average age is 80. Several members say that if something “happens” to them, they’d want the chorus to keep going.  One lady says, “if i collapse onstage, just drag me off and keep singing.”  They have a passionate commitment to their music and their community like I’ve never seen. There’s a stripped-down, raw quality to Young@Heart’s singing, and willingness or perhaps urgency to be unrefined that cuts through social mores. A leaning on each other that’s about survival as much as it’s about friendship.

Something else occured to me as I watched the singers.  Singing is less about finding a perfect voice and more about finding the right container for the voice, no matter how unusual the container or the voice. Or maybe unusual is a prerequisite.  Some of the chorus members were ‘good singers’ in the ways that we learn to recognize ‘good singing’–full, pleasant voices singing on pitch, words and melodies fully remembered. But many weren’t ‘good singers’, and those were the voices, by far, that were the most satisfying. Huge and lusty and frayed.  Filled with colours of shouting, crying, wavering, frailty, strength.  Voices bubbling over with human experience.  Voices that forgot words and rhythms.  All so satisfying, and not in a “oh aren’t they cute?” kind of way.  In a really challenging and satisfying way that spoke to the experience of being human. So it struck me that artistic excellence is not so much about perfecting our voices to shoehorn ourselves into particular established forms and expectations.  It’s about finding the container (both in repertoire and in presentation) to express our full humanness.  It’s at once familiar and strange.  Disruptive and immensely satisfying.

I guess I should let my 2-yr-old pick my movies for me more often.

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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.”

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Summer Voice Classes!

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

I’m thrilled to launch two summer classes!  A class in solo singing that includes performing a solo piece, and an introductory class in the foundations of singing. Excite you? Scare you? Then read on…

Summer Solo Salon
Always wanted to sing a solo?  Or want to sing solo from a different style, or from a new place within yourself? This is the class for you!  A 6-week group class for 6 – 8 people.  You will work on foundational singing technique and apply it to one or two solo songs of your choice. You will get the opportunity to work with the skilled and sensitive collaborative pianist Nadia Boucher. The class will finish with an evening solo salon performance for invited guests in my East End studio.

  • Tuesdays 3 pm to 5 pm, starting July 13, 2010 for 6 weeks
  • Final evening performance: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 7pm
  • Cost: $200
  • Register by email (classes@yerichuk.com) or phone (416-434-8464)

Foundations in Singing: Releasing into the Voice
Based on the singing techniques of Fides Krucker, this 4-week session introduces singers and actors to a deep and fully released breath as a foundation for singing and vocal work. Yes, we will sing, too! You will release physical tensions, learn how to stay open physically and mentally, and stay present and attuned to each living moment as you sing. Class will be limited to 6-8 people.  This class will include solo, partnered, and group work.

  • Thursdays from 9:30 am to 11:30 am
  • Starting August 5, 2010 for 4 weeks
  • Cost: $120
  • Register by email (classes@yerichuk.com) or phone (416-434-8464)
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