Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hearing the Truth

My father has a hobby (obsession?) of collecting electronic equipment and computers. For as long as I can remember, he has loved searching for a deal on the latest technology, purchasing it for a good price, and then ensconcing it in one of the rooms of my family’s home. Some of his projects include creating a small home theater in our basement and creating an elaborate network of computers that are all somehow connected even though they are in various rooms and floors of the house.

When I was in high school, my father just had to have the newest toy out on the market – a mini-disc player. He had done some research and discovered that it was cheaper to buy one in Japan. It just so happened that my uncle was making a trip to Japan in the near future. So, at my father’s request, my uncle picked one up for him and brought it back to us. It was a moderately heavy silver brick covered with buttons all labeled in Japanese.

When I became a senior in High School and was sure that I was music school bound the following year, I decided that I needed to have it. My father generously “lent” it to me, probably knowing that he would never see it again. No matter – there was a newer, smaller, sleeker model coming out that he wanted to upgrade to anyway.

I originally had wanted it so that I could make good quality audition screening tapes cheaply. I never thought to use the thing as part of my practice. I mean, who likes listening to themselves?

A couple of years later, when I was in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, the Studio director and I were having a meeting about my progress when she asked me, “Do you ever record your lessons and coachings?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, you should consider it. It can be a really helpful tool.”

“I prefer to work by feel. I don’t like to record myself. It feels like a waste, because I know that I won’t listen to it, and I really do learn by how it feels – not how it sounds.”

With a simple “ok”, she let the issue drop.

Fast forward another couple of years, to this summer at Marlboro. After a morning dress rehearsal, a recording engineer came up to me at lunch and handed me a CD labeled “Schumann Dress Rehearsal”. I muttered a thank you as I took another bite of my sandwich and put the CD in my binder, promptly forgetting about it. Later that day, after I got back to my room, the CD fell out of my binder as I was putting my things down on my desk. I thought, well, why not give it a listen?

I popped the CD into my laptop, donned my headphones, and pressed play.

We were good.

Quite good, actually. But I was singing a little flat in a passage in the second song. I could hear myself coming off of my breath as I approached another high note in the third song, causing a little bump in the smoothness of the line. I was singing a little too loud in one place, but could afford to give a little bit more in another.

Why didn’t I do this all the time? I mean, this was like being my own voice teacher or vocal coach!

When I left Marlboro, I resolved to dig out that mini-disc player that had lain dormant for almost 10 years and make use of it. I was going to record my lessons. I would then take it on the road with me and record rehearsals.

I actually kept my resolution when I got to NYC and had some lessons. I recorded most of them in September and was really happy with the result. I could actually study what I had learned in detail in between lessons! So much more information began to stick.

I dutifully packed the mini-disc player in my suitcase when I left for France.

And it remained into my suitcase until today.

Why did I leave it there for so long? I was afraid to hear myself. I was afraid that I would hate what I heard.

Lindoro is scary. Lindoro strikes fear into my heart, because his music is simply so technically demanding. I have slaved over this role for years and only recently had the feeling that I know what I am doing.

Why would I ever accept such a role, you ask? Well, because I know I can do it. I have done it before – twice, in fact. I was sick as a dog the last time I did it, but it still went fine. Also, it’s a challenge that, somewhere deep inside, I know I can tackle. And by overcoming such challenges, we discover a deeper layer of our singing, as well as a deeper layer of ourselves.

When I caught a cold ten days ago, I was out of commission for almost a week. The past few days of rehearsal have mostly been about trying to build back my vocal stamina and strength. It’s been a frustrating process trying to find my voice through all the mucus again, and I was beginning to panic.

For some reason, I decided that today I should record myself.

After running the first aria, I was discouraged. My cold was still bothering me just a bit, and I felt like I was negotiating a mine-field as I sang it. Singing isn’t supposed to be that scary – it’s supposed to be fun. The choir inside my head began ranting off thoughts like “that was awful”, “you are a terrible singer”, among other choice phrases.

At the first break, I picked up my ancient mini-disc player and listened to what I had recorded.

It wasn’t bad at all. It was actually quite good.

I could hear the problems, but they weren’t ridiculous and insurmountable. I could quickly address them and begin to solve them myself. Phrases that scared me in their difficulty I discovered actually sounded quite easy. I didn’t need to worry so much about singing them, and I could actually ease up a little in some places. I needed to make sure to get a good breath here and there, make sure not to push in another place, maybe take this lick slower, another lick perhaps faster. I could hear that I needed to make adjustments – not overhaul my technique.

As the rehearsal went on, I made the adjustments that I thought I needed to, and I gradually felt my voice open up and my body relax. I started to feel like “myself” for the first time in over a week. I finally felt like I was beginning to take steps forward again instead of just slogging through mucus and negativity.

As a singer, I often have a hard time being objective about my singing. I often assume the worst, as I tend to be my own worst critic and I have a cheerfully negative choir that sings songs of self-deprecation in my head constantly. Other times, I don’t notice things that go awry because I am caught up in the heat of the moment. Turning to a recording of myself helps me be objective, because all it can do is show the truth. And the truth shall set you free.


Anonymous said...

you mention voice lessons in NYC--who's your teacher now?

nick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nick said...

I have been studying with two people these past few years. When I am in New York, I take lessons with Monica Harte, who I have been working with since I was at Manhattan School of Music. When I am in Houston, I take lessons with Stephen King, who I began working with during my last two years in the HGO Studio. I feel lucky to have sets of ears that I can trust in both places.