Sometimes the best lessons are ones that don’t appear on the syllabus.

(My good friend, the amazingly and multi-facetedly impressive Sarah Jebian, recently asked some of her colleagues if they’d be willing to write blog posts that Sarah could share with her voice and acting students in her monthly newsletter.  Here’s mine:)

I saw it coming.  I knew a solid 8 bars before the high G# that it wasn’t going to come out.  We had learned the notes and marked the breaths and identified the vowels and done all of those other Things You’re Supposed to Do Before You Sing a Song.  He’d even taken a good, low breath before starting the piece.  But as the key changed into the last refrain and the momentum started to build, I saw the self-consciousness chiseling itself into his forehead: was his soft palate high enough? his tongue low enough? his ribcage maintaining noble posture? his base of support sturdy enough?

The irony, of course, is that all of these things are important to consider as you’re building the muscle memory to get your body through the “money note” moment of the song. But focusing on them in that moment is lethal to the art.  And telling yourself not to think about them is as effective as telling yourself not to think about pink elephants.  So what do you put into your mind when you don’t want to think about how hard it is to be an excellent singer?

Great songs are great songs because they tell great stories.  They’re great because they say something to us, or help us to say something we didn’t know how to say ourselves.  Because great music has power—because the world is a different place after a great song has been sung well.  And that power, I believe, comes from a singer’s immersion in the story—in the world of the song.

I stopped my student during the last phrase before the high G#.  “Wait a minute,” I said.

Then I asked him the six questions I ask just about all of my students at some point about every song, every monologue, and every scene:

1. Who are you?

What is your character’s origin story? What archetypes do they echo? What assumptions, values, “baggage” do they carry? What is their super-objective in the play?

2. Whom are you talking to?

What is their power dynamic with your character? What power do they hold over others that you don’t?

3. What do you want from your partner?

There will usually be a text-specific answer and a more essential, archetypical answer. (At the Alsedek Theatre School we call this latter category your “Essential Action,” an idea our founder gleaned from conversations with William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, and other students of the Atlantic Theatre Company.)

4. How important is your goal?

What are the stakes if you fail? What is the reward if you succeed?

5. What’s in the way?

What (or who) is making it difficult to achieve your goal? What tactics might you employ to overcome those obstacles?

6. How will you know when you’ve succeeded?

What behavior from your scene partner will let you know you’ve accomplished your goal?

We talked through the answers to these questions for several minutes, and as we talked I saw the furrows in his forehead loosen, his shoulders drop, and his breathing slow.  The desperate attention to technique relaxed away, and in its place I saw a heartfelt need to tell this character’s story.

“Now,” I said.  “Sing.”

There must be something in the air.

Several times this week I’ve paused in the middle of teaching to interrupt a student’s spiral of self-deprecation and frustration.  The spiral is easy to recognize, either by the words that accompany it— “This doesn’t sound right.” … “That note is so high!” … “Why can’t I get this?” —or, once you know what to look for, by the slow-blinking, eyes-downcast head shake and shoulder slump.  It’s unmistakeable body language: “I’m not good enough.”

There’s a running joke in my field that music lessons tend to be 10% technique and 90% therapy.  And while it is a joke—I’m a vocal supporter of the mental health industry and believe everyone can benefit from working periodically with an excellent professional talk therapist—I know that among the lessons I’ve learned from my own therapist are several that I share often with my students:

  • that every artist healthy human being struggles with self-doubt,
  • that finding (and trusting) voices that recognize and appreciate our inherent worth is one of the most important (and most difficult) things we can do as artists humans, and
  • that I, in my role as an authority figure in their artistic lives, am (I hope!) one of those supportive voices.

So pianist Herbie Hancock’s anecdote about a botched chord in a gig with trumpeter Miles Davis has been on my mind a lot this week.  If you’ve hit a wrong note or two in your own life recently, maybe you’ll find this story moving too.  Click “play” on the video below to hear Hancock tell it for himself.  It’s worth the 90 seconds.

In the meantime, namasté, my friends.  The Divine in me acknowledges the Divine in you.  Can you see it too?

12829043_10154764219683747_1422757073247409189_oMy good friend Jeremy Patterson has a new YouTube interview show called the Capital Area Theatre Show.  Guess who he invited to be his second-ever interviewee?

Tune in below or on the show’s YouTube channel to hear our milkshake-fueled conversation about art and life and idols and dreams and fears and insecurities, and why we do all that we do.  (And he eventually was able to steer me back around to Pippin, which was supposed to be the point of the show to begin with….)

PIPPIN LogoIf you’ve had your life together since day one, and don’t have any idea what it’s like to wonder who you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to do in the world, you may want to ignore this post.

The rest of us will want to make a point of being present in the luxurious Sunoco Performance Theatre at Harrisburg’s Whitaker Center when the Capital Area School for the Arts presents Pippin, the debut musical from the creator of Wicked and Godspell.

Actually, I probably should say the rest of you will want to make a point to be there.  I already have a confirmed seat for all four performances: on the piano bench with the rest of the band.  (I’m musical director and principal keyboardist for the production.)

At this point it’s customary for me to launch into a directorial testimonial of sorts, attempting to capture the magic of live theatre with a well-crafted list of superlatives in the hope that you’ll be motivated to give up a few hours on a weekend to spend time with talented high-schoolers.  But I think they can sell themselves better than I can do the job, even in a rinky lil’ iSight video through a tiny laptop microphone.  Here’s Drew Patti as Pippin and the rest of the company singing “Morning Glow” in rehearsal the other day:

Seating is general admission, and all seats are $12, available in advance at casamusicals.com.  Will you join us?


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It sounds like a Harry Potter spell, doesn’t it?  It’s not, but it can have a magical effect on the demeanor of a beginning singer.  So many of the most common challenges for singers are simply matters of acoustics: the physics of how sound bounces around (or doesn’t) on its way out of your face.  Because singing isn’t much more complicated in our conscious minds than “say ah,” it’s easy to forget that the human vocal system is basically a big fleshy oboe, with two reeds (vocal folds) buzzing against each other and the sound modified by the properties of the tube it passes through.

The levator veli palatini (henceforth, LVP) is the muscle that raises the soft palate, that squishy part at the back of the roof of your mouth.  Evolutionarily the LVP has kept us alive by preventing food and drink from going up our noses when we swallow.  (Handy, eh?)  But singers use it to create a larger resonant space for sound.  It’s the soft palate that makes the difference between a Kermit the Frog (low) and a Sam Eagle (raised).  And more importantly, because raising the soft palate actually creates more space in the “instrument,” there are notes we can’t sing (easily or pleasantly, at least) with a lowered palate, that “magically” become available to us when the palate is raised.

Yesterday at our first vocal rehearsal for Pippin, I talked the cast through a few simple vocal warm-ups designed (among other things) to get the soft palate raised.  A few of our cast are primarily dancers who’ve never had voice training, so the effect was something new to them—and the amazement and delight on their faces made me smile.

One tiny muscle.  I wonder how often we feel like some challenge is completely (and shamefully) out of our reach, when all it would take is a small change to discover we’d had the potential there all along?  I wonder what wisdom we could open ourselves to that would make that challenge entirely, delightfully, doable?