Things I learn

“I don’t want to be known as ‘The Aphasia Guy’” said John to me at his lesson.

John came back to voice lessons after a break of several years. He said he wanted to sing to “keep the black dog” away. I figured he meant some kind of depression. He told me after a few weeks that he had recently been diagnosed with aphasia – the Greeks said it was “speechless”– and he was already having trouble remembering words.

I do my best to not furnish words for him, but instead let him describe around the word or just nod patiently and wait. But when it comes to singing lyrics of songs, he sometimes gets frustrated and shuts down. His normal lyric tenor sounds tight as he closes his mouth, tightens his jaw and sings a half-hearted “luh luh” instead of the words to the art song.

His love of music has remained, and he brings in familiar songs he knows, in German, Italian, French and English — Renaissance and 19th century — and some family songs from his childhood (He rarely gets the words wrong for those).

At first I encouraged him to sing a nice open Italian “ah” or some other open neutral sound when he forgot the words, but he really wanted to do as many lyrics as possible.

Late this summer, John wrote me an email saying he wanted to learn how to “read music better.”  I knew what he meant. He had always learned a few things wrong in each song, even before the aphasia. And once we learn a mistake, it’s hard to correct. But now the musical notation was feeling less decipherable. I wrote back that he reads music fine, but his rhythm has always needed work, so we should focus on keeping the beat, which has always given him confidence that he’s singing what’s on the page.

I don’t know why this works, incidentally, but in my years of working with singers I have witnessed again and again a great improvement in everything—words, rhythm and melody—when a student taps the beat with their hand, or even marches. John and I have done a lot of walking in lessons, when he wasn’t slapping his thigh loudly.

One day I was speaking with my friend Daniel Kempler, a professor of speech pathology whose specialty happens to be aphasia.  He told me that perhaps there is too much going on in printed music, and maybe just reading the words would be easier.  He told me that we “overlearn reading” so that it stays as a skill, even when someone might not understand the meaning of the words. I agreed. Writing the words is helpful to me, as I learn and memorize my songs. Indeed, I give an assignment to all my students before their first lesson to write down the words of their song. It’s a great way of getting in touch with the poetry without the tyranny of a notational representation of what the composer heard in his/her head.

John was unsure if this was the way he wanted to go.  After all, he is hoping to retain these musical skills. But he wrote down the words of his Purcell songs and in the lessons, we worked out a way to handle repeats.

He reads great!  We stayed with English for quite a while.

One odd thing: he keeps reading as if in a sentence, even if the melody expands on a single syllable (many notes on one word).  So we are working on a system that he can devise (and remember) that will make sense to him.  “Come, co-ome a-way-ay-ay-ay” might end up sounding like “Aye, Aye,” if one loses the context, which he can do.

In the early Fall, he told me he wanted to sing with his wife playing piano.  I consult with her teacher, a colleague at the Cambridge Music Consortium, about a good piece for the pianist, and I am delighted we all love a Schubert song, “Gute Nacht”, the first song in the long cycle, Winterreise.

John used to sing pretty well in German, but there are many long verses in “Gute Nacht.”   I suggest we look for an English translation he can sing and maybe cut some of the repeats.

John comes back the next week with his lyrics and a decent translation, not singable but at least we know what each word means.  He tries to sing it, but of course it does not scan–I tell him that singable translations rarely get the total gist of the original.

The next week he comes back with several verses for which he has made his OWN translation. And a lot of it really scans well and even has some of the alliteration and vowel sounds.  This excites me to no end.  We work on the awkward spots, and still, he sometimes just keeps reading the words.  We still get to work on the “good ni-i-ight”.

But it is coming.

I know John was a journalist. He was the Washington correspondent for a major newspaper during the Watergate era.  It is a thrill to witness the tenacity and inventiveness in his preparation for the lessons. To me, he is a Noble Member of the “Enemies List” of a certain president of the United States. And a really fun student to teach.

 

 

Sheet music to Gute Nacht

“If you saw this notated, you wouldn’t know how to begin to learn this,” said Eugene Friesen at our recent workshop in Vermont.  We all agreed.  We were moving our feet in one pattern, our mouths in another, and using rhythmic shakers in third.  Pretty shaky, overall.  I would think I had achieved some sort of groove, then would lose it.  And then gain it back by NOT thinking, but by feeling the pulse “in the lower part of your body” as master percussionist Glen Velez suggested.

two absract figures with leaves
Matisse polyrhythms

“Your Rhythm, Your Life” was the title of the workshop, but we often felt as if we were being mugged by our fears.  And yet, we each improved, improvised over the patterns and gained confidence.  I learned a lot about how I learn and how others do as well, and I had a barrel of fun improvising with the other intrepid participants, a gaggle of string players and singers.

I LOVE being a student in musical workshops.  I get to be nervous and excited, want to please the teachers, ask questions, get plenty of feedback, and not take up too much space .  It reminds me of what my students must go through in my classes.  Beginner’s mind.  Well, advanced intermediate in this case, but you get the idea.

I learn best when I’m not expecting too much or trying too hard.  I have had some of my best lessons when I was feeling under the weather–lower expectations.  When I can play at something, I discover for myself and learn the best.  When I am praised for small victories, I thrive and feel safe to take more risks.

The third teacher at this marvelous workshop is a singer, Loire.  She demonstrated, sang duets with us and played with us musically.  The last session, she said that as she looked around, we were all scowling and focusing our faces so hard.  She observed we could say “I have no idea where I am” with either a frustrated voice or a very playful voice.  We all laughed and someone said that we actually hear better with our mouths open in a smile.  Is that why it is so pleasant to have a little open mouthed yawn as we inhale to sing?  We hear better?  And I thought it just opened the physical apparatus so I could sing better.  Hmmm…

Polyrhythms.   Easier to learn  through play and body movements than thinking too much.  In through the back door.  Start with something we CAN do and build on that.  Expect fun, set reasonable goals.  Aim high as we like and be willing to allow ourselves to make some messes along the way.

blue bran with lots of arrows coming into and out of itSometimes my brain gets full. This “information age” can be quite exhausting at times. So when I attended 4 days of wonderful concerts, master classes and workshops here in Boston at the National NATS conference last week, I felt I needed a nap every day.

Actually, I felt like that in school after lunch.

But I digress. Or not. How do we absorb all this wonderful new stuff?

I find it seeps down. Sneaky deep, as my friend Cerridwen puts it.

Coming back to teaching summer lessons and classes, I found myself trying new things, on the fly, with students.  Just simple things, like closing your eyes and feeling the sound, or placing your hands gently on your cheeks to feel the gentle opening of the jaw.  Just stuff.  And I felt excited again about my students’ progress.  And they discovered new things themselves.  It wasn’t all new information, but hearing it from a different teacher (or student), gave me a new look.

A new look.  So I was looking for some French mélodies (that’s art song, the French equivalent of German Lied) and thought of an old book I was given by one of my teachers, Woody Thornton, before he moved to Europe to sing opera in the 1980’s.   Sergius Kagan’s Music for the Voice.  Still in print, and at your local library.  Chock-full of great information on songs, their range and tessitura, suitability for high or low voices, how hard the piano part is, etc.  And Mr. Kagan edited most of the International Editions I bought over the years.  So, despite databases and new books on repertoire, here was this marvelous book right next to the piano, on the shelf with dictionaries and encyclopedias.

There are 2 anthologies of French songs in my very library, edited by Mr. Kagan, with so many composers– BUT NOT Fauré and Debussy, because everybody sings a lot of those two wonderful guys.

And that’s how it goes. Hearing D’Anna Fortunato sing a short recital of Boston composers (with the Marvelous John McDonald) reminded me of how long this great legacy is.  (I’m also a booster on West Coast composers, being bi-coastal).  And hearing 2 marvelous baritone recitals of mostly American music, more great repertoire and new composers.  Hearing the scientific basis of what we intuitively know after years of using our voices and teaching others to do so, is very cool.  It seems that body-based learning is all the rage.  Who knew our style would finally become fashionable?

So, my takeaway from all this is that a nap is a good thing.  I once heard that Pavarotti said “90% of my practicing is done in bed.”  Before you get snarky and lewd, think about this: we used look at the vocabulary list before bed and be better able to give those definitions on the next day’s test.  We absorb, and the knowledge filters down, sneaky deep.

 

 

 

I was good in school, but bad at two things: penmanship and conduct. Got “Satisfactory” in both subjects–like a gentlewoman’s C.
I spent a lot of time in first grade in the hallway, mostly from talking. “Yes, I know the other children were talking, Liz, but we HEARD you.”

Well, I’m not sure I behave any better as an adult, but I am learning to conduct better. Conduct others, that is. Turns out, it’s a neat trick to be able to telegraph musical ideas in new ways. I’m used to singing, breathing, moving to give signals to colleagues when I’m performing. I’m accustomed to guiding the student(s) with my piano playing. Now, I am actually working with a pianist (a very good one–Megan Henderson is a singer, player and conductor herself) who will follow my gestures and take my tempi, all with a wave of a hand.

I had some great choral conductors in my life. Tom Fettke was my high school chorus teacher at Oakland High School. William F. Russell at Pomona College, Louis Magor in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Roger Nelson in the Port Costa Players, and Craig Smith at Emmanuel Music in Boston. All these folks LET US SING, they let us BE MUSICAL. You have no idea how many conductors try to control a group of singers and get no music made at all. Others try but are ineffective at keeping a beat or showing what they want.

The leaders who inspire me clearly LOVE their players and the music. I once sat onstage to watch Bernard Haitink conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Brahms 2nd Symphony (We called it the Tweedy symphony after that because of the Dutch spelling of 2nd: Tweede). He looked at his players with such warmth and respect, and wow, did he get a sound from them.

This past weekend I heard and saw Maria Schneider and her Orchestra perform in Boston. This woman attracts the very best jazz players, folks who ordinarily wouldn’t be playing with such a big group–they are all marvelous soloists on their own. And she not only writes such beautiful arrangements, but she clearly lets them do their musical thing. Not just on their solos,  but being musical partners to her tunes all through.

group of singers standing around a guitarist, having fun

So as I begin my new phase of conducting these voice classes of elder adults–away from the piano, just standing and waving and breathing–I am inspired by the marvelous models above. And others. So far, so good. We sang a dress rehearsal at a senior residence this morning, and I really enjoyed just being with the music and with my group. Listening, loving, not worrying about how I was doing, being in the moment.

What a gift.

JP Jubilee in concert tomorrow night, Jamaica Plain branch library, 7:00, free. Very short program.

Platinum singers begin their summer session May 7 at the Harriet Tubman House.

The chorus at the Simon Fireman Home in Randolph is making a couple of field trips in June (one to visit the Platinum Singers, their “cousins” through me, and the other to the “Mother Ship” of Hebrew Senior Life in Roslindale.)  We’re working on “Goin’ to Boston” and other tunes about Time and Place.

The Marathon anniversary has come and past and we’ve performed A View from Heartbreak Hill enough times that I cannot get one of the tunes out of my head.  “This, this gleaming April”, begins the song “Still”, speaks of the beauty all around us –“tulips beautiful”, “stroll to the park”, and then seeing the flags at half mast.  That’s how it is: this year as well as last.  So much beauty and so many reminders, all together.   Sad and wistful and poignant and so much beauty, so much new growth.

This month I’ve sung, taught, had a wonderful Passover Seder with friends and family, walked, rode my bike, gardened, and had terrible allergies.  The week of the last performance I had to cancel teaching in order to save my voice, and hide from the beckoning garden on the day of the concert.  I went swimming instead, letting the chlorine banish the tree pollen from my instrument, or respiratory passages anyway.  After so many years of taking care to avoid colds, not drink or eat certain foods before big concerts (for days or even weeks, in some circumstances), it is a relief to have fewer concerts for which to prepare, and more that simply fit the current me:  less travel on planes near concert dates, pieces that are written for me and that fit me perfectly.  That is a wonderful gift of being a mature singer who has paid my dues–I sang plenty of awkward music in my 20’s,  too high or too soft or uncountable.   I did enough premieres of “just okay” music, and many more of sublime music.

pink flowers in early spring

Today, this gleaming April day, the first flowers on my apricot tree opened.  Apricots bloom early, and often get hit by frost afterwards, but they seem to know what they are doing.  I’ve seen about 2 apricots ripen on that tree over the past 10+ years.  First the aphids and then the birds get them.  But it is a lovely sight, along with the daffodils, hyacinths and all the little green spouts of perennials coming back to life again (“I’m so glad to see you again,” I say to them in the mornings when I make my rounds, “Please remind me of your name.”)

April is also National Poetry Month, and I got a chance to hear Martha Collins read from her new books right down the street in Roslindale, where my JP Jubilee group sang for the seniors last semester.  Martha wrote “The Green House”, which Dana Maiben set so beautifully for me to sing last year.  So I was particularly pleased to hear poems about April–she writes a poem a day for a month and has a book with 6 months covered, all from different years.

April’s more

red than green,

              when I wrote at seven

the busy maple I didn’t know what

the maple was doing,

               but now I’m fixed

on magnolia: rose bullets on one side

of this tree and opening open-

ing open on the other

 

Martha Collins, Day Unto Day, ©2014

 

 

picture of Darryl Settles and description of groups to perform--Platinum SIngers and Boston CHildren's Chorus“Come on up, I’ve got a lifeline…”

We’ve been singing the Harriet Tubman song for a few years now–you may have heard it sung by Holly Near with Ronnie Gilbert or by a grade school choir.  It’s a particular favorite of The Platinum Singers–a compelling story of  this strong woman who risked her life over and over to free more slaves.  We meet at the Harriet Tubman House, and there is a large portrait of Miss Tubman in the room where we rehearse every Wednesday.

This Saturday the United South End Settlements–the facility which sponsors our Singers– is honoring a wonderful community leader, and we get to sing with some teens from the Choral Union of the Boston Children’s Chorus.  We all got a lift when we met to rehearse last weekend, watching the kids do their body percussion as they sang, and working on an African folk song all together.

But best of all, I am now in contact with Walter Robinson, who wrote the iconic song which has become a kind of anthem for The Platinum Singers.  He now lives in the Philippines, where he does anti-slavery work.  He wrote about Harriet Tubman:  She literally removes the word “by-stander” and replaces it with “everyone can be an activist for the good and freedom of those oppressed.”

Sometimes I write a thank you letter and hope it reaches the teacher/composer/performer.  Because of one of those letters,  I have a new colleague.  Walter used to live around here, wrote Harriet Tubman in 1977, and has been writing more ever since.

We never know who and what will be that Lifeline, but it helps to pay attention and be ready to go with it.  The Platinum Singers have been Lifelines for each other and for me.

 

I hesitate to call my elder singers “cute.”  But that keeps coming to mind.  My mom used that word plenty and I’ve used it from everything to describe shoes, food, people and especially animals.   Can’t help it.  But what is NOT cute about:

  • folks who have already proven themselves as capable, competent,  distinguished and all the other adjectives that describe adult behavior AND
  • are willing to be silly and playful in order to find creative expression.

It’s not that we try to act silly in class or onstage.  It’s just that we are willing to let go of those carefully crafted personas we developed as we grew into adulthood.  We let go of having to be in charge and set an example to the kids, the bosses, the clients.

I teach all ages and learn from them all.  That’s the fun of teaching, continuing to learn.  What I notice is how LITTLE my older students complain about what they cannot do or what ails them.  They go on, move forward and keep growing.  It inspires me to be a better conductor and pianist.  So, come to one of the class concerts I’m conducting in the next few weeks.  JP Jubilee is the new name for Singing for Seniors at The Boston Public Library. Our concert will be short, free and full of fun.  Thursday December 5 at 7:30 pm in Jamaica Plain, see full info below.a group of energetic senior singers with their mouths open in song

…And The Platinum Singers are performing at the Harriet Tubman House on Wednesday, December 18 at 2:30 in the afternoon.  An in-house concert of an hour with these sweeties.  We just had a grand pre-Thanksgiving lunch with a terrific group called “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren”.  They sang along with us and told us their stories (if we asked).  Directions to the Tubman House:  www.uses.org  Flyer to follow shortly…

Liz standing in front of the small chorus, all wearing Platinum Singers/USES banners around their necks

So, is there a better word than cute?  Let me know and I’ll try to incorporate it…

colorful piano keyboard

During an exercise class  I was moving in the wrong direction, as the teacher was keeping us on our toes by mixing things up. It reminded me to “find my feet”, a comment that helps in all sorts of situations.

Well, in music it helps to find middle C. Working with a 12-year old student, we kept finding C in songs and exercises (her clever teacher knows the material).

And I am learning a Handel role that is in alto clef. Nice to have our own clef, but it requires finding middle C and adjusting, after years of treble and bass clef. It is certainly familiar; after all, I have sung Baroque pieces in this clef and I am in a trio with a viola, who also uses this clef. But even a seasoned contralto needs to “find her feet” by finding Middle C, just to stay balanced.

Middle C is a great way to get grounded, and also to remember what is truly important.  As I prepare to sing a benefit for a cure for folks with MS, I am aware that health is a huge middle C for us all.

alto clef with description of where middle C is locatedMy back in hurting tonight, so I’m keeping things simple and not attending the social event that was planned.  Staying home and keeping quiet is a good balance for a gregarious performer.  We need quiet time and time to get centered before performances.   I don’t usually listen to recordings of works I’m preparing, but since I’ve known “Schlummert Ein” for about 30 years, I figured it might be nice to check out my shelf of CDs.  I knew I had Lorraine Hunt and Will Parker, both lovely colleagues who died at the height of their careers.  I also found Max von Egmond, the Dutch baritone with whom I studied and later sang a Christmas Oratorio with here in Boston.  What a delight to hear such beautiful performances, and such memories of all of them.   Each brings their special interpretation and character to this piece. I used to feel intimidated by recordings, especially someone as close in age to me as Lorraine.  But something changes as we age–the sense of unworthiness, frustration at not being perfect, or sheer ambition simply shifts.  I look forward to ours tomorrow.

Appreciation has many rewards.  Being able to keep singing and doing what I love is the best.   I get to teach a master class this coming Tuesday at NEC on Baroque ornamentation.  I’m no huge expert, but I’ve been doing this long enough and I love to mentor less experienced singers.  Introducing them to the joys and thrills of making up their own improvisations.  I found out some of my colleagues who are more expert than me are quite reluctant to put themselves out there.   What have we to lose?  Let’s share what we know and encourage others.

When I write exercises on a classroom board, I usually say:

I’m writing this in C major, but life is not in C major.”

Thanks to a student named Virginia, who made me this button

Yellow button with "Life is not in C major"

I have a lot to be thankful for these days.

photo credit (c) Charlotte Fiorito Photography 2012, All Rights Reserved

In no particular order:

I recently sang and taught at an amazing  event in San Jose, CA.  The Tech Awards give innovative folks who are doing great works to benefit humanity  a chance to be seen and heard and to get monetary awards.  I got to give a workshop for these engineers and scientists, to aid them in presenting their projects in public.

From a Distance, video of The Tech Awards ceremony with my new friend Dolores

Bonus: Did you hear the embedded melody in the piano?  Our arrangement.

That weekend I also had a visit with my wonderful 89-year old voice teacher in Berkeley, Lilian Loran.  She gave me the confidence to pursue solo singing and to “sing classical music the way you sing your Carole King songs.”  Well, I now give the same advice to my students.  I met my colleague from long ago, Susie Morris, at Lilian’s, and we sang “Sound the Trumpets” of Purcell for her.  I believe we last sang that duet in 1979, and it was like we had never parted!

Eleanor Cohen and I visited that weekend.  Although she was never my piano nor voice teacher, she was a mentor to me: she told my dad I had one of the few true contralto voices and he should stop bugging me to stop doing music and try for medical school.  She’s “only” 86 and still stands on her head every day.  Thanks, Ellie!

We’ll be recording John McDonald’s The Budbill Seasons in December, Elizabeth Bennett and I.  Elizabeth is a Shakuhashi player, and the poet, David Budbill was a student of hers.   In Winter: Tonight: Sunset, the speaker expresses appreciation:

“…I pause in this moment  at the beginning of my old age and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening…”

www.davidbudbill.com

Once home in Boston, I saw Ann Moss, a delightful colleague who took my graduate level classes once upon a time at Longy.  She is launching her own solo CD project and we were there to encourage her. You can check out her project of new works (and Joni Mitchell songs–I’m glad she learned that lesson well to combine art songs of all genres) at http://annmosssoprano.tumblr.com/currents

Dana Maiben is writing a piece for our Mockingbird Trio, The Green House, to be premiered on February 3 at Brandeis University, and the early drafts look wonderful.  Story by Martha Collins.

We have been awarded another grant to teach Singing to senior citizens–in my home branch of the Boston Public Library.  It will begin on Fridays in March.
Hooray for MetLife and Creative Aging!  Platinum Singers continue as well…

And finally, I’ll be performing a set at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, MA  on Sunday February 24.  Special guests to be announced.  Improvisation and original songs are sure to be part of this mix.

Busman’s holiday: I attended a workshop with Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra recently.  I’m pretty good at improvising and was excited about working with my teacher Rhiannon and finally meeting Bobby and the others.

Well, I can still sing pretty good, but I have a lot to learn.  And I learned a lot about how people work together to create from scratch and how beginners must feel when they come to one of my voice classes.  I can’t do all the cool rhythms right off the bat; I have trouble keeping my part going when others are doing something  completely different–just as the beginning choir member has trouble singing a round.  Yes, just like that.  I was so blown away by some of the counter rhythms of the other groups (circle singing is an act of making improvised parts and putting them together on the spot, sometimes someone will solo over them, but it has a lot to do with how things fit to make an interesting whole) that I had to stop and listen.  That’s good, if others are carrying on.   We would lose our beat, we would get bored just “holding an alto part.”  Just like life.  Doing the laundry, holding an alto part.

I met some really talented folks there, not all singers at all–a tap dance teacher, a film composer, drummers and activists.  And we all listened and learned and had a great time, playing.  Like summer camp for adults, with vegetarian food.

Now, school starts up, I get to try out the circle singing with my students (if they don’t know they’re improvising they loosen up more quickly) and go be a cantor for the High Holidays.  Oh yes, and sing the opera about the bunny hoarder again.

Pretty good life, pretty great, actually.