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“Hmmm, which delicious aria shall I sing first?”

A new semester begins!  Study Handel at NEC’s School of Continuing Education on Wednesday evenings Handel for Singers and Instrumentalists begins January 20.

Platinum Singers begin the same day, at the Harriet Tubman House.  A singing class for anyone who qualifies for the AARP, and a fun group to boot.  Virtually free, and you can attend a dynamite exercise class just beforehand.  USES Senior services

If you want to join the JP Jubilee singing group, the wait is until February 19, 2016.  Contact me for further info about this group that meets on Friday mornings, and, like the Platinum Singers, is a class and a performing group.  We meet at Curtis Hall in Jamaica Plain.

BUT wait, there’s more!  Private lessons with me, of course, in JP and Cambridge, AND our monthly Circle Singing group meets Sunday January 10 at St. Mary’s Church in Central Square, Cambridge.  Please contact Peter McLoughlin if you’d like more info.  Runs 4:30-6:30pm, fun group improvisational singing à la Bobby McFerrin.

Laurel and Hardy moving a piano over a narrow footbridge in the Alps

Getting back to regular exercise after colliding with an upright piano  (don’t ask, and please do not try this at home*), I find myself torn between pushing and holding back.  Yeah, that old conundrum.  No pain, no gain and all that.  Well, at a certain point we all have to listen to our bodies and heed what they say or they yell louder (“That HURTS, you IDIOT–can you hear me now?”).

I’ve always been a get-back-on the-horse as quickly as possible kind of person, so I’ve been walking and stretching.  Today I tried an exercise class.  I couldn’t do everything, but at least I went.  I listened to my body intently as I moved, and feel pretty good now.  It took a few years (okay, decades) to get the hang of how to garden for a short time and then stand up and walk around or do something different with my body.  So now i have another  reminder.

And so it is with singing.  We push for the high notes, lift our shoulders, tighten our necks and jaws.  We have all sung without warming up, pushed through vocal fatigue and colds and done a thousand other little things.  My favorite is how we lean towards the audience as we sing to show we really care…

Bob Dylan singing at a mic, neck forward with harmonica attached to his neck
Photo: © Sony

I was singing a recital with my wise colleague Francie Fitch after a bout with bronchitis.  I was frustrated that I couldn’t get from 0-60mph as soon as I resumed singing.  She reminded me that in the 19th century novels, heroines often had a “long convalescence.” How lovely, to give oneself such a gentle recuperative period.  We don’t.  I know.  It’s even faster paced now than when I was a pup. I was anxious to be a good employee at every gig I landed, always showing up and singing full voice, never being a troublesome colleague.  When I had vocal problems, I ignored them and the results were not pretty.

We are told not to listen to ourselves when we sing.  I know how hard that is.  But we can listen to our bodies–in a loving and respectful way.  They tell us to take a sip of water, to rest the voice for a while, to take a nap or have a meal.  There is an art to living in a body, and an art to having your instrument in your body.  It takes patience.  And practice.

*okay,I was trying to prevent a small upright from tipping over.  I was moving said piano–as I have every week at the Harriet Tubman House for 6 years, mind you–to use it to teach my lovely class and the wheels froze (kind of like shopping carts, it felt like) and my helper gave that extra push…since I was holding the handle and I desperately wanted to right the piano, I held on too long.  It had lost its balance on occasion before, but had never fallen on its back.   The piano lived and only one note sticks–the low Eb that is the tonic for our Bach aria, by the way.  I have bruises all the way from elbow to tip of fingers. The full mechanisms are slow to get  back and to strengthen again.  But it could have been much worse.

 

“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

This is your chance! Daytime classes start Wednesday in the South End and Friday in Jamaica Plain. Both accessible by bus, parking is pretty darn good, and the teacher is really fun. Ostensibly for folks 55+, we do not card at the door.

The Platinum Singers meet Wednesdays 2-3:30 starting September 17 at the Harriet Tubman House, corner of Mass and Columbus Avenues in the South End. Nearly free: $15/12 classes, and no one is turned away for lack of funds.  Contact hviarruel@uses.org to register.  www.uses.org
note: no class Sept 24.

JP Jubilee begins Friday Sept 19 at 10:30 am. Flyer below

picture of singers being conducted on floral background with information about singing class

“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.

 

CMC Open House Flyer

I’m going to be teaching at the Cambridge Music Consortium beginning in July. I’m thrilled to be rejoining my excellent faculty colleagues from Longy in a wonderful space they have created over the past year. While I enjoyed my studio in Arlington and walking to Spy Pond on breaks,  I can now walk in beautiful neighborhoods around Broadway and do my grocery shopping at the “old Bread and Circus” on Prospect. There is an open house for the whole of CMC this coming Sunday, and I will be there in the evening shift. (There’s a “petting zoo” in the afternoon for kids. I’m not sure what one could pet on my instrument, so I’ll skip that.)  I’ll be on their website before too long, and you can contact me here if you are interested in lessons.   I will be accepting new students there on Mondays and Thursdays.

 

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.