God Defend New Zealand – yeehah!

Singing cowgirlMy singing engagements for 2014 started off with two renditions of the New Zealand national anthem, both poles apart in presentation. The first one was at the New Zealand Masters Games in Dunedin. I was participating in the games (netball), and when a Dunedin music friend saw I was going to be there, he asked me to join in with his choir to sing the anthem at the Opening Ceremony. We had 16 voices in 4-part harmony, singing an arrangement by NZ composer Anthony Ritchie. The ceremony was held in a big hall and we were seated just in front of the raised stage, but facing the audience. No yawning or random scratching of body parts allowed. Normally everyone sings the anthem but we must have done a good job because the more we sang the less the audience sang and just listened. A victory for choral singing!

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum….I was asked if I would sing the anthem for the Southland Rodeo at the their annual event. They specifically wanted someone who could sing unaccompanied and in tune – apparently they’d had some less than stellar performances in the past. I’m pretty sure my lovely friend Sarah Court would have been perfect for this – horses and singing, two of her favourite things.

They outfitted me with cowboy hat and boots, jeans and checked shirt, handed me a microphone and led me into the arena for the Grand Parade. As we were waiting for the horses carrying the flags to finish cantering in, a horse in the pens just behind and along from us decided it wanted to join the fun and clambered noisily and with much flourishing of sharp hooves over the bars of its pen and into the arena. Was I about to be trampled? I could just see tomorrow’s newspaper headline ‘Horse saves C&W crowd from operatic intruder’. But he was subdued and I duly made my way out to the centre of the arena and belted out the anthem in both languages, as is the custom these days. No-one spat hayseeds at me so I figured I passed muster. Ahem.

Now it’s on to more classically inclined performances, the first one being a duet this weekend at a friend’s wedding. Said friend, my duet partner and I are all long-time choir buddies and the blushing bride requested that we sing before grace and ‘something that will show off your lovely voices’. So a-searching I went for something a) for two sopranos b) unaccompanied and c) appropriate. After discarding a number of options from my musical stash for being too cliched/overblown/inappropriate I consulted with my dear friend Mr G. Oogle and after spending a happy half-hour watching cats do cute things on YouTube I came across this

For 2 sopranos? Check. Unaaccompanied? Can be done so. Appropriate to sing before grace? Hmm, let’s check the translation of ‘Esurientes, in plevit bonis’……ah here it is – ‘He shall feed the hungry’. Clearly a sign from the Universe.

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ShowerIt’s local singing competition time again. I’m sure it’s only been 6 months since the last one. I’m pleased to say that I’m a little better prepared than last time, thanks to the constant prodding of my lovely teacher. Oh except for the ‘own selection’ for the Scholarship section, which we dithered over for various reasons and then I chose an aria I’ve never even heard before, let alone sung. And promptly went on holiday, as you do when you have a new aria to learn and not a lot of time left to learn it.

So here’s the rep list:

  • French Art Song: Les Chemins de l’Amour (Poulenc)
  • British Art Song: Song of Shadows (Richard Rodney Bennett)
  • Lieder: Neue Liebe (Mendelssohn)
  • Oratorio: Cujus animam gementem (Pergolesi)
  • Duet: Domine (Mozart)
  • Operatic Aria: Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen
  • Scholarship: Test – Bist du bei mir (Bach), own selection – Fair Robin I Love (Mechem)
  • Comic/Light Operatic: I want to sing in opera (David & Arthurs)

There’s a fair bit of singing in that lot. As I’ve mentioned before I make use of the shower to learn rep in other languages. But here’s what I’d really like in order  to make the shower into a music study:  A shower with a wall which encloses a large touch screen linked to some device on which all my scores are loaded, so I can turn the pages (a giant iPad if you will) and this screen is also linked to a piano accompaniment which I can sing to. Ok I just read that back and really all I’m asking to do is karaoke in the shower. How hard could it be to design something like that? If someone out there knows how to do it, I’ll patent it and then off you go, give me 25% of the profit and the first shower off the production line and we’ll call it quits.

Remember in my last blog post I talked about the little man who lives in my brain? I came across this great video of the gorgeous Joyce di Donato talking about her inner critic. I nearly put my neck out nodding away.

Can you wear a nice dress and breathe too?

One thing that always causes me some angst in relation to performing is clothing. Singing nude is not an option although I’m willing to bet there are some opera directors out there that would love to figure out a way to get some of their stars to do it  – probably with Katherine Jenkins in mind. (Please don’t write furious messages telling me off for calling her an opera singer, I know she is not but the people out there who try to think up new ways of making money don’t care about the distinctions much less the quality of her singing).  So when the choice is mine, how do I make that choice? 
Firstly, and rather importantly, I have to be able to breathe. Not just ordinary every-day breathing but deep, lung-filling, get-me-through-the-long phrase breathing. Now that I am learning to relax and breathe fully and without restraint, this means that anything too tight round my midsection is out. 
Next, there is the problem of legs. If the dress is too short the audience is distracted, too long and you risk doing a face-plant as you regally ascend the few steps to the stage/platform.  I also have another leg problem – they shake. Invariably about half-way through the aria/art song/lied I’ll feel them start to tremble. Doesn’t matter if I’m feeling completely relaxed and calm, away they go like there’s a seismic tremor occurring directly beneath me. So a reasonable length of dress is a useful disguise.

So how about ‘the girls’? Anything too low cut and the audience will be fixated on your cleavage, waiting in a combination of anxiety and interest to see if you will have a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ as you take in the enormous lungful of air required to see you through the third coloratura bit of the Mozart ‘Alleluia’.

What about shoes then? Too high and you risk falling off them, too low and you can look a bit mumsy. Earrings? Too dangly and/or sparkly and they distract the audience. Bracelets? They might jingle in the the wrong key. At least with my short hair I can’t go too wrong. (As an aside, I yearn for long hair that I could curl, put up, put down – I think it gives you more options).

So the other day I bought a dress. It doesn’t look like this:

But it does look like this:

I may not look even a quarter as glamorous as KJ but I bet my audience will concentrate on my singing and not my appearance. What do you reckon?

Can I have my voice back please?

First the history. Back at the end of the April I sang the roles of the Dew Fairy and the Sandman in Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel’. It was part of the Southland Arts Festival. These were my first solo roles and it was a completely awesome experience. My teacher sang the part of Gretel, the lovely Amanda Winfield (who is a fabulous soprano and a complete professional as you will soon see) sang two big roles, the Mother and the Witch, and her very talented husband-in-real-life Ravil Atlas was the director and conductor. (I’ll tell you about my experiences of singing my first opera role in another post).
Depsite a bit of a head cold, all was well until I woke up on the Saturday morning of the last performance, opened my mouth to say something and was alarmed to discover that an enraged chicken and taken over my voice. Despite the best efforts of a magic gargle and steam, it was clear to everyone that I was not going to be able to sing. Being a complete amateur I thought this was someting of an insurmmountable problem and with what little bit of voice I could muster was apologizing to all and sundry. And yes, I admit it, trying not to cry. 
Ravil decided that Amanda would sing my part from the wings into a microphone leading to a speaker that was already at the front of the stage and I would mime. I got ready to duck, waiting for Amanda to throw a diva-tantrum along the lines of “I’m already singing two big roles and you want me to sing two others that I will have to sight-read??!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” *hurls breakable objects at anyone in the vicinity* And what happened next, dear readers is why working with professional singers although being completely nerve-wracking for an amateur like me, is also a god-send when something goes awry. Amanda calmly reorganises her costume changes, grabs the score and lightly sings over my two arias (I slaved over those for weeks!) and then as I launch into my 1,346th apology, she turns to me and says with a big smile “It’s fine – really”. And it was 🙂
Anyway, the point of all that is that it was the start of the problems with my voice. My voice came back, but only slowly. And now anything more than about half an hour of singing and I get husky. First stop the doctor and a prescription for antibiotics to ensure no silent infection and then prednisone to reduce inflammation. They might as well have been jelly-babies for all the good they did. (Actually real jelly-babies would have been more therapeutic). So then a referral to an ENT specialist in Dunedin where a camera was shoved up my nose and down my throat – not nearly as bad as it sounds – and I was able to watch my vocal folds on a tv screen. Is it vain of me to say that they looked beautiful? The ENT man agreed that they would make a lovely illustration of what-vocal-folds-should-look-like in a text book. Which is all very nice, but didn’t explain the voice problems.
So here’s his theory, and the reason why I had my first visit to a speech therapist on Thursday: Because my voice took a while to come back after losing it, I unconsciously started using a number of smaller muscles in my neck and shoulder area to help bolster the sound. These aren’t designed to take that amount of work and therefore get strained. So I have to learn to stop using them. Back to basics. Lots of steaming still. Oh and for those of you who have ever conversed with me, this will amuse you  – I have to try and slow down my speech a little. Frankly I think I would have a better chance of singing Mimi at La Scala than speaking more slowly but I’m going to try. I know. I. can. do it. if. I. really. try.