Vocal Health for Young Singers

This is a great conversation between experts at the NYU Voice Center about young singers. If you have questions about how your voice works and how to keep it healthy, this is for you. It’s about an hour, but well worth it!

Great Free Apps for New Music Students

Since so many music students have access to iPads and iPhones I thought it would be useful to put together a list of great free apps. For those of you who use Android devices I’ve provided links where available.

Metronome: Tempo Lite by Frozen Ape 

A metronome is an essential part of any music student’s tool bag. This is a great metronome app; it is accurate and flexible. The free version has everything a new music student will need, if your music gets complicated you can upgrade to the paid app. And, if you’re an Android user there’s a paid app version for you.

Music Tutor (free) by JSplash

A great way to learn all the notes on the staff. The free version has ads, but it’s worth it for a quick and fun way to master the note names. You can customize it so that students only learn a portion of the notes at a time and then add in notes as they learn them on their instrument. There is an Android version, too.

Keezy Drummer by Elepath

This app is a fun way to experiment with rhythms. All the beats are in 4/4 time, but if students are resisting the metronome, this can be a fun alternative. Unfortunately, there is no Android version for Keezy apps yet.

Keezy by Elepath

From the same company, a great app for stepping into the creator’s shoes. You can use their sounds or make your own and then play them using the colorful buttons. It is a great way to think about music away from your usual instrument.

Voice Memos by Apple

It’s always great to have a recording device handy and since most people have a phone with them at all times it's the perfect solution. I encourage voice students to record their lessons so they can remember what we talked about and so they can use the warmup exercises from their lessons during the week. Instrumentalists and singers can use it to record an example from a lesson or to record something during practice that their teacher can then hear in a lesson. It comes standard on an iPhone.

GarageBand by Apple

If you want a great free recorder for iPad try GarageBand. This is great for recording via the built in microphone. Students can also experiment with composing for different instruments and play with loops.

Studying Voice Abroad: Summer Programs in Europe

Dale Morehouse of UMKC, my dear mentor and friend, has a witty and informative blog of his own, singeronthehoof.blogspot.com. When he posted about options for summer programs in Europe, I knew I had to share them here.

I believe that even in today’s global village, there is an irreplaceable value in going to the places where the greatest of western music was conceived and in absorbing all we can once we’re there. Language, architecture, cuisine, ethos, and lifestyle reveal music along with score study. Experiencing music’s masterpieces where they were created unstops our inexperienced ears.

And so, from our home in America - the land of air conditioning, ice cubes, free drink refills, and screens on our windows, I rise in praise of European study for today’s young classical musician. English-language programs flourish all over the continent now, each offering its own opportunities. Take care to find a program that matches your level of ability and interest, and you will grow beyond your imagination.

He has overviews of four great programs and who they work best for. Opera Viva in Verona, Italy; Classical Music Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria; Orvieto Musica Chamber Music Festival in Orvieto, Italy; and American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria. Dale has taught and/or sung at all of them, so he has great insight into their workings. If you're interested in options for summer study abroad, check them out.

"How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" - A Paean in Praise of European Study

Using Music to Close the Academic Gap

Stretto Youth Orchestra

There was an article in the Atlantic this week about several long-term studies on how music can impact academics for students in low income schools. While there have been many studies released recently on how music may impact the brain, most of these seem to be short-term studies of small groups in which the authors infer that music is making a difference in brain function based mostly on correlation. These newer studies are long term and the groups in the studies seem well balanced. The schools participating in the studies are seeing very good early results.

Though these studies are far from over, researchers, as well as the parents and teachers of the study subjects, are already noticing a change in the kids who are studying music. Preliminary results suggest that not only does school and community-based music instruction indeed have an impact on brain functioning, but that it could possibly make a significant difference in the academic trajectory of lower-income kids.

This is great news for those kids, and it's also great news for music. These studies are showing scientifically that music is important for a well rounded education. I believe that music is important for cultural reasons — beyond helping students master other subjects, music is important in its own right. However, any study that reinforces the role of music in education is an excellent tool to help get funding and community support for maintaining excellent music programs in our schools.

You can read the article at the Atlantic.

How to Be Creative

Off Book is a bi-weekly video series by PBS Digital Studios. Subjects range from technology to art to pop culture. While it isn't specifically about music, this video, "How to Be Creative," has some great insights to the creative process.

Creativity has always been essential for our cultural growth, but there are still many misconceptions about this elusive process. Not the left-brain/right-brain binary that we've come to believe, being creative is considerably more complex, and requires a nuanced understanding of ourself and others. Being a powerful creative person involves letting go of preconceived notions of what an artist is, and discovering and inventing new processes that yield great ideas. Most importantly, creators must push forward, whether the light bulb illuminates or not.

via PBS Arts

Shine on Harvest Moon

"Shine on Harvest Moon" was first published in 1908 by performers Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth; although, apparently there is some controversy as to the actual composers. This song is one of many moon-themed songs of the era.

The song has enjoyed long-term popularity. In addition to being featured in many films, there are at least two movies with the same title as the song; a 1938 western starring Roy Rogers, and a 1944 bio pic about Bayes and Norworth. It has been recorded by many performers throughout the 20th century and continues to be a popular choice more than a century later.

I'm using sheet music from 1918 that includes chords for uke in D. Since I'm playing a soprano ukulele tuned in C and singing it in the original key, I'm ignoring the chord shapes and just reading the chord names. As with many songs of the tin-pan-alley era, the chorus is more well known than the verses, but I've decided to sing the first verse as well.

Here it is in honor of this week's harvest moon, and the autumnal equinox. Enjoy!

More Advice on Practicing

She plays

It's the start of another school year and a good time to re-think practice routines. I've posted about practicing in the past, but I'm always on the lookout for more practicing strategies.

Deceptive Cadence (NPR's classical music blog) has posted an article called 10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Music Practice. There are some great ideas for developing musicians, including:

Begin with the end in mind: have a goal for each practice session before you start playing. Just playing through your music isn't the same thing as practicing. Before you start, think: What do I want to accomplish today?

Last year, they posted a series of articles called The Young Person's Guide to Making Music, geared towards parents and students just starting out in music. The article that stands out among these is Getting Kids to Practice Music – Without Tears or Tantrums.

Regular practicing is a path towards self-discipline that goes way beyond music – it's a skill that has hugely positive ramifications for personal fulfillment and lifetime success…. But the trick is that self-motivated discipline isn't exactly first nature for most kids, so it's up to families to help create positive, engaging and fun ways to practice as a path towards self-motivation.

The articles are full of great advice, so take a few minutes to go read them!

What Does an Opera Career Look Like?

The College Audition Blog has a great article on how an operatic career gets going. There is a heavy emphasis on college degrees, although, I think some singers can opt out of these if they put together a comprehensive plan for themselves that includes studying with an excellent teacher, working with a great coach, studying foreign languages, and performing in community opera as a first step.

...so here is the cold, hard, dirty truth about the climb to the top.



Sunset Piano Opus 2

I stumbled upon a neat art installation/performance project this morning called "Sunset Piano Opus 2." Mauro Ffortissimo is the artist behind the project to place twelve pianos along the San Mateo coast in Northern California for public performing. Dean Mermell is filming a documentary about the event that should be finished by December 2013.

From their Kickstarter page:

In early July, Mauro is planning to deploy twelve pianos at select locations along the beautiful San Mateo coastline. Anyone can come and play a piano by the sea, anytime. He's inviting some incredible bay area musicians to join him in bringing attention to the fragile state of the world's oceans, as well as the near extinction of the "personal" piano. Piano manufacturing has dwindled, and the neglect of acoustic pianos has caused thousands of them to end up in landfills. The "Twelve Pianos" project will focus the spotlight on two species with uncertain futures.

It occurred to me that Ffortissimo and Mermell do not directly address the environmental impact that this project may have on the coastline. However, the chosen spots seem to be in places where the public is already welcome and they profess that they are, "committed to doing everything in a totally environmentally responsible manner and to leave no trace." It looks like a neat project - I wish I lived closer so that I could participate.

-via Laughing Squid

The Evolution of the Treble Clef

treble clef

The Smithsonian has a nice article with an overview of the treble clef and how the symbol we know so well came to be.

...So, with apologies to the more musically inclined reader, I looked into the origin of the treble clef and the answer was quite simple. The treble clef, the top symbol you see in the photo above, is also known as the G-clef, which gives you the first clue to its origin.

For more, visit Smithsonian.com. Via a Facebook post by Lauri's List

Andrew Bird on Performing

Tumblr's Storyboard posted a nice interview with musician Andrew Bird in February. I've loved Bird's music since I first heard it. His music is eclectic, polished, emotional, and unpretentious. My favorite songs include "Cock o' the Walk" from the Bowl of Fire album and "Measuring Cups" from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Some may know him from the recent movie The Muppet's, where he performed the whistling for Walter's performance. He also performed a sweet and touching version of "It's not easy being green" for the movie album. He plays violin, sings, and dabbles in many other instruments.

In this interview he focuses on why he tries to capture an amateur spirit in his performances. If I understand him correctly, he's talking about when a performance becomes so highly polished that it lacks personality and emotion. I tend to agree with him that many modern performances lack spontaneity and genuine feeling. Instead of treating each performance as a new opportunity, many musicians tend to try to recreate the exact sound from a studio album. On the other hand, I think his training and skill as a professional give him far more choices when communicating with the audience. Without that skill set any mistakes he made would be awkward, and he would not be able to "use the mishap as fuel to bring the whole performance to even greater heights."

For a little more background on the interview, see the original post at Storyboard.

Radiolab Explores Tempo in Beethoven's Music

WNYC's Radiolab is one of my favorite programs. It's hosted by Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, who explore the world around us. In a recent podcast, they discuss the metronome markings in Ludwig van Beethoven's music, which have been quite controversial. They focus on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony since it is so well known. Some performers feel that his markings are too fast, while others take him at his word. The faster you go the more exciting it is. Radiolab wanted to explore how fast is too fast. Here is a quartet from the Brooklyn Philharmonic performing the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at 160 beats per minute. Beethoven's marking is at 108, so this is a little silly, but also kind of fun. 

One thing that is left out of the discussion is performance practice and how that has changed over time. Our understanding of the "correct" tempos have come through the filter of the Romantic Era, where bigger is better and therefore slower (and schmaltzier) is often the norm. Early 20th century recordings bear that out, but as we come to realize that classical orchestras were not as large, and that the pieces were performed in smaller halls, performances have become faster. Conductors who are part of the historically informed performance movement, like John Eliot Gardiner, tend to take Beethoven's symphonies as marked; they seem perfectly reasonable and – in my opinion – better served. You can hear the whole "Speedy Beet" episode (18 minutes) at Radiolab's website.

Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival

This is an interesting article on the value of teaching music in public schools from a non-musician. The author talks about how his lack of understanding in music frustrates him and how he sees his daughter's music teacher bring understanding to her students.

And so I find myself sitting in a music classroom of a local high school waiting for my daughter to perform. There’s another young woman seated at the piano when I sit down and I am reminded that for many students, middle school is a time of painful awkwardness.... She begins playing and I close my eyes and give my imagination to the music…and it’s beautiful. Vulgarian that I am, I even recognize it as a piece that I’ve heard before. I open my eyes and thoughts of awkwardness are gone. At the piano sits a young musician – one who just took me to a place that I cannot reach on my own. It’s so important that music education remain a part of the public school experience. Every student should have the opportunity to learn music if, for nothing else, than for our society’s selfish interest in avoiding failure to identify and foster the next generation of gifted musicians because their families couldn’t afford private music lessons.

Go read the rest here: Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival by someone who doesn’t get it.

Great Advice from Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato is one of my favorite singers, and now I see that she is thoughtful and funny and wise. This is from the end of a master class at Julliard where she took time to answer questions from the audience. The video is more than 30 minutes, but if you are interested in pursuing life as a performer (or even if you want to be a successful in a challenging career of any kind) it's well worth watching. She offers excellent advice on how to overcome that nagging inner voice we all have and shares some of her personal experiences.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart (I'm in Love with You)

In honor of Valentine's day, here's a little love song. "Let Me Call You Sweetheart (I'm in Love with You)" is a popular tune from 1910 with music by Leo Friedman and words by Beth Slater Whitson. I'm playing from the 1912 sheet music, which includes ukulele chords along with the piano accompaniment. I made a few minor adjustments, but I'm basically playing and singing as written. You may have heard this song in a recent episode of Downton Abbey (series 3, episode 2).

Ask a Voice Teacher: Finding Your Own Voice

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the third post in the series and it deals with staying true to one's own voice. Many students come to lessons with very specific ideas about how they would like to sound. They often have a specific singer or song in their minds, but this can lead to problems down the road.

Why can't I sing this song?

I'm very open to students singing pieces that they love and are interested in. It is very rare that I'll tell a student, "I don't want you to work on this song," especially with the options available to move songs to an appropriate key. When I do, it is usually for one of two reasons. Most of the time, when this happens, I want a student to wait until they have improved technical skills for a difficult piece. Perhaps the range is too large, or maybe it requires skill in leaping larger intervals, or it could have very long phrases that require excellent breath control. In these cases, I'll let the student know that we can revisit the song once s/he has acquired the skill necessary.

Sometimes, however, a song is just not right for a singer because it requires a different sort of voice. For instance, I am not a Wagnerian soprano, so that repertoire is off the table for me (not that I mind all that much). In a futile attempt to sing over the large orchestra I would likely damage my voice. Instead, I'm more suited to Mozart and Handel where the orchestra is not as large and my voice can shine over it. It is important for singers to strive toward their own best sound and not try to become something that they are not, which leads to the next question I hear from singers.

Can you help me sound like a specific singer?

The answer is: I can help you sound your best, but that means not reducing your voice to an imitation of someone else's voice. Everyone is physically unique, so no two voices sound alike. Trying to sound like someone else would mean that you have to go out of the way to change your sound. This can lead to vocal injury. Even if a favorite singer has a healthy voice that is in the same voice type (fach) as yours, s/he may be a good role model, but you will never sound exactly alike - and this is a good thing. If we all sounded alike, the world of singing would be very boring. (I sometimes feel like this is happening a bit, but that's another post, entirely.) I try to redirect students' ideas about sound away from imitation and make it more about genre and style. Is your favorite singer Nora Jones? Let's work on some jazz standards. Do you love Luciano Pavarotti? Let's start with some Italian art songs. This way singers can work in a healthy way towards refining their own unique voices.

Do you have a question you've always wanted to ask a voice teacher? Leave it for me in the comments and I'll try to answer it in a future post.


Why Do Our Voices Sound Different To Us Than To Other People?

Voice students often have difficulty separating the sounds that they hear when they sing from what it will sound like to the rest of us. As anyone who has heard themselves on a recording knows, you sound very different in your own head. This can lead to singing in a way that sounds great to you, while it sounds "covered" or muffled to the rest of the world. Mental Floss has a great, short article on some reasons for this. Check it out. Why Do Our Voices Sound Different To Us Than To Other People? | Mental Floss.

At the Mid Hour of Night

I'm finally back to making music after the holidays, so here's a new song for my public domain project. "At the Mid Hour of Night" is an Irish folk song from the 5th volume of Moore's Irish Melodies. The poet, Thomas Moore, and arranger, John Stevenson, selected old Irish tunes and wrote new words and piano accompaniments for them. They began publishing these in about 1807 and the volume with this song was first published in 1813. I used the 1882 edition available at the Petrucci Music Library.

Many classical singers know this song from the collection of folksong arrangements by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), which is where I first learned of it. The melody is slightly different from Britten's arrangement, which used the melody "O Molly, dear!" collected by Edward Bunting from a harper in 1800. Petrucci Music Library has the Bunting Ancient Music of Ireland collection available, as well. Instead of using Stevenson's accompaniment – it seems a bit too reliant on tonic and dominant chords for this tune – I've made my own simple arrangement for baritone ukulele to highlight the haunting melody.