Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Importance of Being Me -- what I wish I knew in Grad School

Hello again friends,

Thank you for your patience as I explore the avenue of discussing and reviewing teaching books through this blog. Amazon's affiliate program could help to fund further writing on this blog if it takes, so please consider purchasing through me as a "donation"  - if you will - so that my students can continue to learn, and I can help navigate beginning voice and music teachers through so many options for learning! I want to help others by sharing what I find inspirational today. As young singers, we have so much on our plates. This is a list of things I wish I knew, and some of the boks that influenced my life in the last three years. I am a big book nerd, so I feel like it's great to share if I find things that are really helpful!

- Liesl

The Importance of Being Me (a singer, teacher, and human being)

This article is something I've been rolling around today, after having a friend ask for advice. I want to let people know: I'm out there and I'm working, and I am (sort of) staying sane. Not every day is glorious, there are ups and downs, but I feel mostly in-control of my life. That is so important for people to understand about gaining control over anxiety. I was not very public about my anxiety struggles while I was going through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but I did have to meet a therapist, deal with out-of-state insurance, and more b.s. through my second year of grad school. Guess what? I came out on the other side O.K. - when I thought the whole world was going to crash down on me and end, it didn't. Some major life changes happened, and after I let go of the anger and allowed myself to be free of other people's ambitions for me, I felt free and capable. I still notice the anxiety creeping back in when I start to lose control of things like my schedule or my diet, I am still working on building confidence. Self-confidence is a life-long journey.

I feel like it's time to be open about some things because maybe I can help the next young woman or man dealing with fear, anxiety, and general stress!

Being true to yourself is so hard, but I am finally starting to feel more open, honest, and forgiving of myself. I am allowing myself to be true to my own needs and wants. The photo below was taken at the NATS workshop, January 2017, in San Diego. I worked with Mark Moliterno (author of the Musician's Breath, founder of the YogaVoice Foundation, and mentor-friend from Westminster Choir College). His yogic postures really helped open up my singing, and the fact that I was able to mentally feel secure made all the difference in the world to my sound! I am so glad to FINALLY feel like I can embrace who I am, without worrying about others' "disapproval."

Singing Un Bel Di from Madama Butterfly at the NATS workshop in San Diego

What I Wish I Knew During Grad School

1. Being a musician is hard. No one tells you that many aspects are NOT glamorous. It can be grueling. You will work every single day for three months, then find yourself without anything and be stressed. Or - you may have to decide not to be a traveling musician, and make some sacrifices. Sometimes, though - you will get to be extremely elegant and go to great places and be treated like a Queen (or King)! But every day you should be grateful that you can do what you do. You make people happy when you give them your music. Remember that.

2. Being a musician costs a lot of money. It goes beyond the weekly voice lessons, audition fees, and travel costs. It costs you time. Time you can't work in your day job will deplete the bank account, but you'll have to learn to balance it out. You need to be a good accountant for yourself. Learn to balance your books, and try to not be wasteful (and no one needs to know your gown was from Goodwill - look around mid to late summer when everyone gets rid of old prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses)!

3. You don't need to RUSH into anything. If you're not ready, don't audition. Find programs you ARE ready for, and take the plunge into more challenging and competitive programs when you know you can ACE it. I know there are lots of age limits on these YAPs, but stop stressing about it. The right things will find you when you are ready to sing them. I am turning 29, and will be too old to audition for a lot of training programs next season, but I am JUST now settling into my full lyric sound. I finally feel ready to sing the roles that are right for my voice, and I'm pretty much aged out. Does that mean I should give up? No. Training programs that push young singers too far, too young are not doing them favors (they are more likely getting cheap employees for the year). 

4. There is more work out there than the Met Opera - and not everyone is cut out for that. Believe me: There is a demand for singers out there and you CAN find meaningful work that you enjoy. Sometimes you will have to be creative about it and you will have fun in things you never imagined you would do! The most rewarding programs to sing have been in hospitals and for the elderly - the people who LOVE what you do and feel that spiritual connection to music. 

5. LOVE your fellow artists. Celebrate with them. Brag on your friends (even if you're a little jealous). Because love for others can't hurt you. Don't talk crap about singers getting gigs. You don't know the whole story and if you are prickly, people won't want to work with you! Support the arts in every way you can. Go watch performances. Observe. ("Talk Less. Smile More."). 

6.  Promote yourself. I still have so much trouble with the cold calling and the self-promotion! I feel so conceited, and maybe that I'm not good enough and they'll think I'm ridiculous. But guess what: you have to like yourself a little bit. :)

Books that helped me as an artist:

Dana Fonteneau: It's Not (Just) About the Gig. I had the pleasure of getting to be in a class taught by Ms. Fonteneau last summer at Opera San Jose. Her practical approach to being a working musician and keeping your sanity is WONDERFUL. I feel like this workbook she has created is a great tool for those leaving school and trying to figure out living, finances, and reality. Know what you really want out of your career. Sometimes, we need to accept ourselves and not try to become like someone else (I will never be a Renee Fleming or Diana Damrau, and I am OK with that). You may be able to purchase on Kindle much cheaper. That's what I did! Since it's a workbook, you will have to have a notebook ready for writing exercises.

For inspiration, I turn to quotes from Julia Cameron's The Artists Way. A workbook and supplemental materials to live creatively, think creatively, and find artistic freedom through writing and letting out emotions.

Inspirational Books for Everyone

Audible had a free trial with self-improvement audiobooks. I listened to Buddhism for Beginners on my commutes to and from my voice studio. I'm really into religious philosophy lately, and want to understand what is out there as I work to grow as a person. I thought the answers to many basic questions about Buddhism in this book were wonderful. I want to be more mindful. More compassionate. We all have to work on it. Check out audible with the link below. It's free to downloads and I was able to read this book free of charge (I have Amazon Prime, so it might require that)!!

 Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Suze Orman - Women and Money (Listen for FREE with your Audible trial)! I know the title sounds a little sexist, but women today need to understand our own finances! The men in my life tend to be highly aware of finances, and I wanted to be, too! We need to have control of our money, and like I said: being a musician is expensive. You had to take out how many dollars in student loans? Did you have to use credit cards? Are you dealing with credit card debt on top of loans? And OH NO your car broke down! What can you do??? Take Control Of Your Finances. Life does NOT get cheaper as you age. I left grad school with $40,000 in student loans, plus over $3000 in credit card debt, had to pay $1600 per month for an apartment (because the SF Bay Area went COMPLETELY insane, and that was the CHEAPEST thing I could find in the area...), and I had a teaching job (that "secure" day job I couldn't stand). Luckily, my car held out until I had completely paid off the personal loan I got to pay off debt from credit cards. Now I have NO credit card debt, an AWESOME credit score, and I bought my first NEW car last year (#lovemyhonda). I don't even have the "day-job" anymore (and don't have to live in a shoebox for $1600/month, either)! (Of course, I will be paying off student loans until I die, I'm sure... our new Government Administration will be sure of that). I don't give FULL credit to Suze Orman, but the more you know about controlling debt, the better your life (and credit score) will be. Between this guide, and Dana Fonteneau's, you can figure out the business side of your life so that you can ENJOY making music.

Last book I have to recommend: Jen Lancaster's The Tao of Martha - if we don't have a sense of humor about ourselves and our ambitions, then we will never survive this crazy world. Jen also has a hilarious blog with anecdotes about the day to day life of an author (an artist of a different kind, for sure, but none-the-less a great read).  This book had me constantly laughing. And while, as singers, we are not necessarily trying to create the perfect garden party, or cook an amazing meal for 100 guests, you can appreciate her self-acceptance and take away the fact that NO PERSON is perfect. Laugh at yourself. Enjoy life. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Beginning Voice Students, Part 2 - Adult Students

This article contains affiliate links.

Here's part two, adult students. There are a few "brands" of adult students, so to speak. I am not going to address college students - these are "kids over 18" in my opinion. The adult beginning voice student - called by my local NATS Festival "Late Bloomer" category, can be comprised of older, retired adults, adults who study after work for fun, those trying to get into a community choir, or feel better about church choir, and you may have that adult who is longing to perform on America's Got Talent. They will have varying needs and you are going to need to understand how much of their lesson is recreational and how much is serious.

Private Students and Music Theory

When we want to introduce theory to adults, how do we do this without 1) seeming condescending, or 2) taking time from vocal technique, which is WHY they came to you in the first place. I have found that when adults begin taking music lessons, it is because they really love music and singing, and are trying to get over a technical hurdle that prevents them from fully enjoying singing. More often than not, these are the students you may need to guide through practicing. Occasionally they will have done some music in their youth, but maybe not. They may have rusty music theory from piano lessons, or not have any background with music theory whatsoever.

So, do we recommend that adults take outside piano lessons? Do we introduce theory as we go along? Or do we pick our battles? I tend to recommend self-study. I understand for adults it is often a struggle just to get to voice lessons, practice those songs, and go about daily life. But some, like retirees with a little extra time, want to soak up everything they can. I think a great self-study book is essential. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the same book to some of my adults that I use with kids.

Theory and Sight-Reading for Singers has been a great find for my studio. It introduces basic concepts chapter by chapter, and for my young girls and teens, we sing through the sight-singing exercises and they can ask questions, but it is truly designed as a voice lesson supplement. Teacher guidance with this book is extremely helpful, and there are two part exercises to practice singing harmonies.

Alfred's Essentials - Self Study: If you know your student is going to work on things on their own, you can recommend a self-study theory book. Even with the best students, I think without guidance it can easily get put aside. But, I was impressed by how much ground the Alfred Self-Study covered. If they are serious, taking piano and voice, and want to understand, this is a good avenue. It has the CDs, workbook pages, and in the back there is a full answer key.

Group Lessons/Choir Music Literacy

I direct an adult church choir, and this is a challenge. I have a retired choir conductor and retired professor who can sight read anything, some men who play piano and guitar, and a handful of adult singers who would rather have a lyric sheet. My first step to get evryone up to speed is to offer three introductory theory sessions. JUST basic notation and some simple sight-singing. I feel like those who don't need it shouldn't have to do these exercises, and I'm on a limited amount of time for teaching theory for the majority of the liturgical year, because we must sing anthems for church. Luckily, after Easter it gets a lot quieter and we will be winding down for summer, perfect time to give them something new to do!

We are going to work through Alfred's Music Theory, Book 1. I liked this book because it's straightforward, cut-to-the-chase, and cheap enough to buy with my church music budget for whoever needs one. I was very impressed with the depth of the self-study book for private students, so I decided we will try the class book for choir. The lessons are almost identical, the only thing about the Book 1 is that you don't get the ear training CDs or the answer keys, so if you don't plan to spend much time DURING lessons on theory, then talk your student into the more expensive self-study so that lessons can be focused on technique. For classroom teachers, I LOVE that this book has a teacher book of reproducibles. When I worked in the classroom, it would have been perfect when needing a sub! Middle school and up could handle it. :)

I am also a former student of David Xiques, and will be using some of his ear-training exercises in his book Solfege and Sonority. He published this book several years after I graduated, and I giggled quite a bit because it was like being in his choirs and his classroom. He teaches through Kodaly, but also brings in his many years of experience as a singer and conductor, so there are glimmers of Robert Shaw counting, Vance George's musical expressiveness, and much much more to value as a conductor. This book is really optimal for middle and high school choral directors (even community college or extra-curricular university choir) who need a place to jump off with theory. My church practices in the sanctuary, so some of the written exercises can't be done properly - hence the separate class for introducing notation and vocabulary. The step-by-step directions on introducing musical movement (step-skip, etc) were extremely helpful when I was in the music classroom. 

(Private students could gain from either of these books, but they may not necessarily benefit from them for long. The Alfred book is easy to work through, but there is a collection of Books 1 - 3 available, if you choose to go that route.)

Hybrid - Piano/Voice for Adults

It's taken a little while to get this part of the article up, as I have been scouring piano libraries for appropriate choices for adult learning. 
David Carr Glover Adult Piano Student (published by Alfred). I tend to drift toward these for voice students because they put reading the staff before developing hand techniques (They DO develop hand techniques, don't get me wrong). Your student will see clear explanations of following skips versus steps - much like David Xiques' book - which inevitably will help your singers. Because Glover was a jazz pianist, his methods may be a bit more suited to the aurally inclined student needing to understand the written notation (I can't say for certain, that's just my guess). His forward openly expresses that he is trying to move slower than other Adult Piano books.
Alfred Adult Piano Course gave me one concern: they print the note names on the notes, even in the "grown-up" book. I feel like we should try to introduce moveable notation, not get hung up on C. Patterns, in my opinion, are important to develop for sight-reading. Some adults may find this much more straightforward and helpful though. Very simple stuff. Has songs that could be sung in lessons such as Raisins and Almonds (if you don't know this lullaby, go look it up... gorgeous). Right hand is introduced, then left hand, then grand staff. Moves somewhat slowly, had students chording relatively quickly. For the advanced voice student/music ed major preparing for teaching, this could be very useful. 

Bartok Mikrokosmos would be ideal for a student who has already studied music notation, has no fears, and is willing to dive into musical techniques. Mikrokosmos follows parallel motion and develops finger skills. Bartok's introduction stated that is was intended for a student to have aural skills before beginning this course of study. Students who can handle this will have some introduction to solfege. I think it's great for adult learners ready for piano who have already either played an instrument other than piano, or sung in choir for a long time and have a good grasp of musical line and ideas. 
As with anything else in the music world, these are not the only options. I did not get my hands on a Bastien, for example, but would like to see what that had to offer (although I believe they move VERY fast, so you need dedicated daily study with those). 
Never forget that your voice and piano students need to have fun when learning. Even adults like games and flashcards, so encourage playfulness in the lesson!! 
Comment below if you have a favorite theory or piano book you like to use for adult students!

A Busy Singer is a Happy Singer

The days tick on, and although it's January, Springtime is rolling in! Not just green trees and wild flowers, but the spring opera seaso...

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