Russian language, opera, and fitness (or Русский язык, опера, и фитнес)

For this month, I set the goal for myself to become as proficient in Russian, as I am in the languages I studied since college: Italian, French, and German. I set the goal of Russian for myself both because I sing in it, and because I’ve loved and been fascinated with that language for as long as I can remember, even before I ever started singing.

The process of this goal was a joy, yet especially challenging, and it made me think about the processes of some of my other goals—like when I was first building my vocal technique and when I was building up my fitness level to boost my endurance. (Marathon roles like Violetta have become much easier as a result of building my fitness level! And please note that I’m saying “easier”—a role like that is never “easy”, I don’t think.)

While I absolutely adore Russian and the beauty of the language, I think it’s fair to say it’s not easy! I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer amount of rules and concepts you have to learn to grasp that language. However, I also remember feeling this way when I started building my vocal technique, and also when I started building up my fitness and stamina. In my Russian classes, I sometimes felt like the intellectual equivalent of how I was at my first fitness class—way more sluggish than I liked, and sore for three days afterwards. This was the time when I felt the most frustrated, and questioned my own progress. With singing, too, the beginning was the hardest, and I remember feeling like I’d never achieve the level I wanted. I remember feeling just as baffled by the concepts of support/placement/registers/etc when I started studying voice, as I’ve felt while studying Russian grammar! (I definitely think they’re comparable, as far as both the intricacy and the sheer amount of information you have to learn and internalize!)
Then again, I know that the beginning is always, always, always the hardest. (Yes, I wrote “always” three times.)

Then again, that perspective reminds me that when I’m overwhelmed by a goal, all I need to do is be one day better at it. One additional concept, one word, one conversation, one paragraph in that language, is a solid goal for that day, and to build from there.

I also reminded myself that I’m not going to feel dramatic progress while doing the thing itself. That’s because building my “Russian brain muscles” (or those of any other language) is a gradual endeavor, just like building my physical and vocal muscles. I also had to remind myself that my goal is progress, not perfection. It would have been destructive to make my goal “perfection”, since that’s not doable, and that would only set me up for failure. “Progress” is the most constructive and realistic goal I can reach, and the best thing I could ask for.

All of that said, I eventually built myself up to be able to take a fitness class every day, and to be able to take on marathon opera roles (like Violetta). Thankfully, these made sore-for-three-days-afterwards experiences a thing of the past! However, I know I never would have been able to achieve that if I expected myself to do those things from the time I started. Not to mention, that I would have ended up injuring myself if I put those kinds of demands on my body, which couldn’t withstand that yet! I worked with what I had at the time, and made small goals. And from there, I was able to eventually reach bigger goals. And in hindsight, I seemed to reach them in no time. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to learn this month, that I advanced to the next level of my Russian skills! There were several times when I wasn’t sure if I was making tangible progress, so I realized that I needed to give myself more credit, and that I was probably doing much better than I thought.

However, I set my goal to be as proficient in Russian by the end of this month as I am in Italian, French, and German (languages I’ve guided tours in). While I did get to the next level of Russian, I didn’t achieve as much proficiency as I would have liked (more on why in the next paragraph). But erring on the side of that bigger goal was great, since I was able to achieve more than I otherwise would have. It’s like when I wasn’t able to get through a full set of ab exercises in one of my fitness classes, but I was able to achieve most of them—which is more than I otherwise might have pushed myself to do.

I realized that since Russian was my first ever Slavic language that I was learning, it would have been delusional of me to expect the same level of proficiency in it by the end of this period as I would have achieved in a Romance language, whose structure I’m familiar with. The structure of Russian is so different from anything I’ve ever learned, that I have to budget for that in my goal setting. Similarly, I wouldn’t expect myself to memorize a twelve-tone Berg piece in the same amount of time it would take me to learn a tonal bel canto piece—they’re two entirely different animals, and one of those things is one I have far less experience with. I can’t gauge myself in this respect the way that, say, a person who already speaks a Slavic language can. But knowing that puts things into perspective.

One of my fitness instructors said once: “If you knew you had the rest of your life, or even the rest of this year, to achieve a goal, why would you be so hard on yourself for not being where you want to be yet right now?” I calculated the hours it took me to achieve the next level of Russian this month, and I realized that achieving proficiency in Russian within the next two years is an absolutely doable goal! Knowing I have this time to achieve my linguistic goals really takes the pressure off. At least that’s what I find!

As for Russian-language-specific observations:

My teacher explained to me this month that each verb has a perfective and imperfective form, and that each has only past, present, and future conjugations. That was game-changing for me, because it made me realize that Russian grammar and language isn’t so much difficult, as it is simply a different framework. To compare language structures with stores and the wares you’d buy there:

The infinitives in Romance languages are like Target: all of the conjugations for that verb are linked only to that one infinitive (let’s say, “faire”, in French). But the sheer number of conjugations you have to learn per verb are so much it can be overwhelming. (Much like wrapping your mind around the idea that one store could possibly sell so many different things.)
Conversely, Russian imperfective and perfective verbs are like stores that sell only clothing, and each store a specific kind of clothing (say, one that sells women’s clothing and one that sells men’s clothing). (Like покупать and купить) While they’re both different verbs, each has far fewer conjugations to learn (less wares that they each sell, if you will). And they’re both so similar and inherently linked to each other that it’s not a shot in the dark to guess what the other imperfective or perfective verb might be.
Maybe this is a strange analogy, on my part. But that’s how I look at the Russian verbs. And realizing all of this makes my goal of Russian proficiency seem that much more accessible.

All of that said, the hardest things to learn are the things which are among the most fundamental to that language: the six cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, prepositional, and instrumental), and the verbs of motion. And the only way to learn a thing like this is to drill it until it becomes second-nature, like it was for me learning German syntax.

As for the verbs of motion:
For those of you who don’t know, Russian has at least eight different verb infinitives for “to go”, and they each specify a different way “to go”—to go by foot once, to go by foot habitually, to go by vehicle once, to go by vehicle habitually, etc. And each of these infinitives has conjugations you have to learn(!)
One of the reasons I find this hard to internalize is that I don’t have much of a frame of reference for this concept in any of the languages I speak. The closest thing I can think of is in Hebrew, in which there’s a verb for “to go by foot”, and one for “to go by vehicle.” (For those of you who are Hebrew speakers, I’m talking about ללכת and לנסוע.)
The best explanation I heard on this front is that it would never occur to an English speaker to use the same word to describe a hedgehog as they would a spaceship, even if both things could be described as grey and spiky. It is just as unthinkable to a Russian speaker to use the same verb to describe “to go one time by foot”, as they would “to go habitually by foot”, not to mention all the other verbs of motion.

A reflective and difficult month

This past month had been a reflective, and also difficult, month. It involved the loss of two people who had deep impacts on my life, as a singer and as a person: Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick and Mira Zakai.

Charity and I first met several years ago at IVAI in Israel. When we met, I had no idea that anything was amiss, much less that she was grappling with a terminal disease. She had life-and-death struggles over the last 15 years of her life. Yet, she had accomplished things that would have been remarkable by any standard: she’d sung at Lincoln Center and other prestigious venues around the world, she had keynoted at TEDMED more than once, she had a number 1 album on Billboard's Traditional Classical charts, and she published a book. (In her book, she detailed her life story using her own unique voice as a writer. She also recorded an audio version of her book, which included her singing.) What was even more remarkable than her on-paper achievements was that she’d always had the sunniest, most generous, and most resilient disposition of anyone I had ever known. She had been a dear and wonderful friend to me, and many others I know described her exactly the same way. That she was able to be all she was while going through two double-lung transplants and cancer had always been unfathomable to me. It served as an example for me. A few years ago, when a colleague was going through a hard time in her singing career, I showed her one of Charity’s TED talks. In it, Charity spoke about singing before and after her first double lung transplant. After I showed my colleague that TED talk, she was incredibly moved, and had a renewed resolve and zest for singing. The biggest gifts and legacy I carried away from having known Charity were precisely that: her zest, resolve, generosity, and wisdom, as a singer and person. I’ll always have fond memories of the times Charity and I shared, when we’d catch up over the years. I feel so blessed that all my memories brought me joy--some of them even made me laugh out loud to think about them! Even knowing she’d been terminally ill for a long time, and that she would die early in her life, hearing about her passing still felt surreal. It speaks volumes as to how meaningful her presence was during her extraordinary life.

Mira Zakai was an incredible singer, with an international career, prized by of some of the greatest conductors in the history of our art form. That in and of itself would have been enough to be the pride of one’s home country. However, she used her knowledge, influence, and platform to nurture countless singers and conductors. I’m one of the singers who had been lucky enough to know and learn from her. She was the one who taught me that when you sing a piece that sits in the best place for your voice, the best of all worlds happened: singing is much easier, you’re naturally able to give the piece many vocal colors, and your singing has heart and comes across—and that’s what people pay for when they buy a ticket. She taught me that. I also remember being initially nervous to sing some Israeli songs for her, especially since the arrangements of these songs were written especially for her. Her praise for me, and her telling me she wanted to hear me sing more, was something I considered to be the highest compliment and encouragement, and do to this day. During the time we knew each other, she’d offer me advice, encouragement, and come to performances of mine—she offered this nurturing to many others as well. On a related note, when I prepared concerts, hers were among the recordings I would use to inform my own singing and interpretations. She also encouraged women singers that they could have families while having careers singing, as she did. This was another important example to me. Yet even her legacies as a singer and a teacher weren’t the greatest things about her. She was an incredibly kind and generous person—I’ll never forget how she came especially to my grandmother’s home two years ago to pay us a visit during the shiva right after my grandfather passed away. No matter how great an artist one is, that experience solidified to me that there’s no greater legacy one can leave behind than being a kind person.

I’ve cried a lot this past month over these two losses. However, I’m not only crying tears of grief and loss, but also tears of gratitude for having known and been touched by them. I miss them both terribly, but I know their legacies are living on both in me and countless others.

Observations from a first-time Violetta

Here are some things I've learned, singing my first Traviata. (Any future or present Traviatas who read this: I hope you find something here that's helpful to you!):

-Violetta isn't necessarily harder than Gilda--the challenge is totally different (for me, anyway).
Every singer is going to find certain roles and pieces to be more difficult than others, so what I write here is based on my own experience. Anyway, I've found that as far as maintaining dramatic intensity and presence onstage for a long period of time, Violetta is more difficult. From a vocal standpoint, however, I find Gilda to be much more difficult. Violetta may be physically onstage for much longer than Gilda, but she isn't necessarily singing big arias or duets all the time, unlike Gilda. I liken this to the difference between running a sprint and running a marathon. During a sprint, you have to exert much more during a shorter period of time, and in a marathon, you're exerting yourself over a longer period of time. But not only are you not necessarily exerting yourself as hard as you are singing Gilda, but figuring out how to pace yourself during Violetta is the key to success in the role. Which leads me to my next point...

-Slow and steady (or at least adequately paced) wins the race.
In fact, pieces of feedback I've received throughout the preparation and rehearsal processes have been about where I can give less voice during Violetta--I've never been told to give more. Economy and smart pacing are what win this "vocal and dramatic marathon." :) On this note, the potential "vocal potholes" in the role are in the declamatory sections in Acts 2 and 3--it's very easily to give yourself too much vocally and emotionally in those sections. If you pace yourself carefully, though, you should be just fine. Act 1 isn't a challenge, in this particular respect. On another note, I read this past week about how challenging the role of Mother Courage is, in the Brecht play "Mother Courage and her Children," because she has to carry the show for two and a half hours. When I read that, I admit that I thought to myself, "...and she doesn't have to sing over an orchestra during that time!" :) (Also, cardio classes, or any other exercises that increase your endurance and stamina, will be important!)

-Give your wrists and knees extra love.
In Acts 2 (Scene 2--the party scene) and 3, you’ll be on your knees and wrists a lot during the rehearsal process. Violettas, take good care of them, and be judicious with how you use them. If you’re in a production in which you can wear knee pads under your costume, all the better.

-Be realistic with what you demand of yourself.
Keep in mind that even Violetta, for all her demands (and there are many!), is not expected to sing full out for more than 3 hours a day. Don’t demand of yourself to do more than that per day. Pace yourself throughout the rehearsal process, and mark when you can. You’ll need to sing full out for musical rehearsals, but you can mark during staging rehearsals, for example. Take advantage of that, and come up with a “vocal game plan”—when to mark and when not to. And obviously, do NOT sing the whole role full out the day before you perform the role!

-Granola bars can be a Violetta's best friend (seriously!)
This may be the most "stereotypical opera singer" thing I write in this post, but I've personally found things like granola bars to be especially useful. That, or any kind of food that can keep you energized and full over a 3 hour opera, without making you feel lethargic. This is another thing that will vary from singer to singer, finding what works for you. So long as you're able to have adequate sustenance throughout the show, that's what matters.

These are some observations from a knee-pad-wearing, granola-bar-eating, cardio-doing Violetta! :) Thanks again to JIOM for the opportunity to sing my first Violetta!

One year later

I don’t typically blog about my personal life on my professional blog, but sometimes the two worlds intersect. After my grandfather passed away last spring, I realized that some of the most important professional lessons I’ve learned were from him. I pay especially close attention to lessons my grandfather passed down, because he achieved so much in his own life--so I figure that anything that was good enough for him, is good enough for me! (I’m including a link to his obituary here.)

Saba me and Oren in Hazeva.jpg

Focusing on a few endeavors is enough. 
In the days after my grandfather died, many people came up to me and the rest of my immediate family to tell me the ways he impacted their lives. I realized that there tended to be about five different things that were repeated over and over (in no particular order): his contributions to both nature conservation and evolutionary biology, his impact as a professor, how he gave other conservationists the tools to do their own conservation work, and how he was a loving family man (married to my grandmother for 63 years, with two daughters, and two grandchildren). Hearing these five things repeated over and over again made me realize that focusing your life primarily to a few different endeavors is enough to lead a meaningful life, and even to potentially make a transformative impact. You don’t need to spread yourself thin—a few is enough. 

When you’re going on a path that has no map, an internal compass will be what carries you forward:
It’s easy enough to look back on his life now, and take his successes for granted. However, he put his academic career on hold to pursue an endeavor that had overwhelming odds towards failure. There was no guarantee that the SPNI would last, much less have the impact it ended up having. When you’re pursuing goals that don’t have one set roadmap nor guarantee to success, the thing that will carry you through is an internal compass: unwavering belief in what you’re doing. It won't always be easy, and it will involve standing by what you believe in during difficult times. However, regardless of the outcome, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll come out worse off, or that you’ll fail to make any impact at all, when you're doing work that matters. 

Life is lived in the day-to-day details, not successes and failures.
When I think back about my grandfather, I think of the countless research trips he and my grandmother took, early mornings they took to observe Arabian Babblers, and cups of instant coffee they shared afterwards to talk about what they saw that day. That made me realize that it’s in these day-to-day details that life is truly lived. Both successes and failures aren't the norm—by definition, those moments will be the outliers of one’s life. When I think back on my own (albeit short!) life as a singer, I think mainly on my practice sessions and lessons that have shaped me both as a singer and a person—in short, the things that make up the daily life of an opera singer, rather than peaks and valleys. If you pursue a career in any endeavor, do it because you love the things involved in the daily life in that career, not for any peaks that might come along the way. 

Finding meaning in what you’re doing is enough. 
A couple of years ago, I was about to do an important audition, and I spoke with my grandfather by phone the night before. He ended that conversation by saying that “so long as you’re happy and enjoy yourself along the way, that’s what matters.” That one phone call summed up what I felt from him throughout the entire time that I knew him: that all he wanted was for me to be happy doing work I felt mattered. It wasn’t important what career path I followed (even when I briefly considered following in his footsteps as a scientist back in grade school), nor did it matter to him whether I ever achieved x, y, or z. All you needed to live a meaningful life is to believe in what you’re doing, whatever that may be. I felt this from him, regardless of which career path I would choose. The example from him in that was that one needn’t pursue a career path in order to please others, nor for any other reason that might sacrifice your own integrity in the endeavor—you can absolutely have that, and make a meaningful impact at the same time, because I saw him do just that.

One more thing!

I realized there was one more point I wanted to add to my previous blog post:

You only need a fraction of the people to say yes to you.
In fundraising, one of my managers told me I make an average of 65 phone calls per hour. (Obviously, the only reason one can average that many phone calls is because most people don't pick up.) :) Out of all those phone calls, you're doing well if you get even just one gift that week. On the singing front, I recently saw an interview with the actress Bryce Dallas Howard--in it, she talks about how the average number of jobs an established actor gets, out of the number of auditions they do, is 1 out of 64. (I'm including a link to the interview here. The part I'm referring to starts at 13:56, though the whole interview is well worth-watching.) I know that that number of auditions or phone calls seems daunting, but there's something so liberating in knowing that all you need to fund a world-class arts organization, or be an established performer, is have a fraction of the people say yes to you. All it takes is one performance to be broadcast on national radio, or one audition to get hired by an opera house--but you have to do the other 63 or so auditions to get there.

Pledges, persistence, and the performing arts

Recently, I met with my former boss in arts fundraising, and he said that he believed every artist should work in fundraising sometime in their lives--the lessons you learn there teach you a lot about the resilience and perseverance you need to pursue a career in the arts. In my experience working in fundraising, I absolutely agree with him, and here are a few of the things I've learned that I'd like to pass on:

Rough periods come with the territory
One of my current bosses said to me that sometimes, even the most experienced agents (people who close over $1,000 in one phone call) can go for as long as three weeks without closing so much as a $5 token gift in that period. 
This is not for lack of fine tuning how you pitch, or how you work on your craft and branding as a singer. This is to say that even when those things are finely tuned, you'll still go through rough periods. There are many things that are in your control, such as what you offer in your audition package, or how you tailor your fundraising pitch. At the same time, there are still many factors that aren't in your control, such as the stock market--in the case of fundraising--, or whether you happen to be what the panelists are looking for--in the case of singing.
When you know periods like these come with the territory, you're able to be much more resilient, and far less likely to beat yourself up. I've been through those sale-less periods, and I know how disheartening they can be. I'd be told by my bosses and managers that nothing was wrong, and to just keep pitching until I finally close. The same has been true for singing. And all of that said...

Tides change
When you know your pitch, or audition, is strong, and you continue to fine tune them, then it's just a matter of time before the tides change. I've personally experienced this, in both these areas of my life. 
In fundraising, there was a period in which I went a full week without a single sale--then, I closed $3,600 in one phone call, and then $2,000 a couple of days after that. There wasn't much rhyme or reason as to what I did differently--I offered more or less the same pitch as I had done the entire week before. Other external factors had changed, and that's all that happened--those external factors weren't in my control, and I had to persist in pitching until those fell into place. 
Similarly, there was a period about a couple of years ago which looked quite bleak--I was about to produce one of my concerts, but I couldn't see far past that. Four days after I performed that concert, I got a phone call asking if I'd like to have that performance broadcast on national radio. That experience was my singing equivalent of going a full week without closing a single sale, and then closing $3,600, and then $2,000 in only two phone calls. 
That big "yes" could be right around the corner, but you can't necessarily see it yet. 

Celebrate every success along the way
Of course we all strive to close those big individual sales, or to get those big gigs (radio broadcast or otherwise). If you don't celebrate every success along the way, though--small and big--, you're all but guaranteed to burn out. In fundraising, every token gift matters. Celebrating even the most seemingly minor of token gifts is important as a validation of your ability to close sales--also, that token gift helped open the door to hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate grants, which are awarded to arts organizations on the basis of participation; besides, as one of my managers said, "That's five dollars the [arts organization] didn't have before!"* 
In singing, there is typically a prescreening round for an audition, and the live audition round which follows. Auditions are incredibly selective, and not everyone gets to the live audition round--there are far more talented singers than there are slots available for that round of auditions. The competition to get from that live round to being accepted for a job is even more selective. Even getting to the live audition round, or the next round of a competition, is an achievement, regardless of the outcome--it is a validation that you were strong enough to stand out among many other singers to make it to that next level. While singers continue to strive for the highest possible results, making the next audition round is absolutely a success, and one shouldn't lose sight of that. (Also, even if you don't get that particular audition, you will have sung for people who could possibly hire you in the future. That's another reason getting to that next round is something to be proud of!)

Of course, all of the above is on the condition that you're fine tuning what you do, and that you have people around you who will help you get better and also encourage you along the way. 
If you are, though, and you're still passionate about what you're doing, then keep persevering. Your own personal $3,600 sale, or radio broadcast, could be right around the corner, even if you can't see it yet.

*(On a separate-but-related note, if every person called gave even only $5 each, that arts organization would raise an enormous amount of money in no time!)

History with soul

I'm singing in a benefit concert on September 18 at the Williamsburg Library Theatre for the Sderot Recreation Center in Israel, as part of Nancy and Philip Burstein's Bnei Mitzvot project. Among the pieces I'll perform are songs by Rami Bar-Niv from his song cycle Longing for My Father, which are set to poems by Yaakov Barzilai. Barzilai was a Holocaust survivor whose father died in the Holocaust, and the cycle is about his experiences with that loss.

Working on these pieces made me realize even more deeply that songs and repertoire focused on certain periods of history (especially works based on first-hand accounts) are important because they provide data with a soul, so to speak. It's one thing to read about historical events, in a merely factual way, through history books. It's an altogether different experience to hear about those events through someone's personal story and poetry; that personal effect is enhanced when it's expressed to the audience through an artistic medium that uses the unamplified, vulnerable human voice.

Such storytelling opens the door to learn about, and begin to discuss, difficult topics and periods in history in a way that makes people feel safer talking openly about topics one may not normally address.

For more information about the benefit concert and the Sderot Recreation Center, click on the image below:

Sept 18 benefit concert info.jpg

Clearing the way

There are several gems I've acquired from my voice teachers which inform my singing, and I'm thinking about one of them a lot lately, as I'm preparing new projects to wrap up this year (soon TBA!). It is one Carlos Conde told me. To paraphrase, he once said that nine times out of ten, the thing that holds a singer back from making progress and fulfilling their potential is caused by somehow distorting the instruments we already have. These problems are typically solved by removing the thing (or things) causing the distortion, rather than adding a new concept to the mix.

I think this applies a lot to real life, as well. There isn't anything like an art form in which we primarily express ourselves through phonation to make this point especially acute--after all, phonation is one of the most fundamental ways human beings express themselves! A lot of the things that get in the way of being our best (and honest) selves in our lives are things that distort who we are. These things are best solved by removing the problem, rather than adding something to the mix. For example, if one is an introvert (as I am), don't try and make yourself NOT that way, and instead embrace the great qualities this brings! It's best to embrace that aspect of who you are, and get out of your own way. This ties back to another voice technique gem, which also informs a lot of my approach to voice technique: that singing departs from speech. From your honest speaking voice, not from some distorted concept of what your speaking voice "should" be (whether it's a "deeper, booming voice" or a "lighter, more delicate voice"--if either of those are your natural speaking voice, though, more power to you!) :)

The human body is a fundamentally perfect instrument. (Think of babies who can cry for hours and hours without losing their voices!) So are we, as people--fundamentally amazing. If we can get out of our own ways and embrace who we truly are, then we can truly open the door to be constructive, happy, and creative.

I'm sure this is a process that will continue to be a main theme in my life, and yet it's SO worthwhile, both professionally and personally!

Develop who you already are, and don't fight your nature. Without fail, every single one of my biggest vocal breakthroughs have come about because I got out of my own way, rather than because I artificially "added" something to what I was doing. It's also about bringing forth your best and honest self, and learning to harness that so you can do MORE of what you're already doing right, and make a positive impact on those around you through it.

Also, recognize the things other people are already doing right, rather than trying to "fix" them to be something else they aren't. As "kumbaya" as this might sound, I really think the world would be a much happier place to live if we did that.

A different kind of Throwback Thursday!

The first time I did a competition inside List Hall this year, I was super nervous. (For those of you who don't know, List Hall is an auditorium inside the Met.) 

Walking into the Met to get to List Hall is a thrilling experience, as you often do so by going backstage to get to the hall. You are immediately struck by the grand scale of the Met, the awe of being there, and the feeling of "Holey moley! I'm at the Met!" While it's all absolutely thrilling, I believe it is safe to say that going to List Hall to audition is not the most relaxing experience one could have! Even though I've done a few competitions there by now, that feeling of awe, mixed with nerves, never goes away.

While I was preparing myself for the audition, I ran across this quote:

I believe this was one of those moments of the right advice coming at the right time. It is so easy in a circumstance like this to get in the mindset of "Holy crap! This is a really important audition! I'd better get every little minuscule thing right! (*Cue the scary music!*). Taking this advice to heart helped relieve that to a large degree.

Of course, doing the best I can at what I do is important to me--I love what I do, and I absolutely believe it is worth it to do what I can (in my own small way) to keep bringing the unique vulnerability that only be expressed through opera.  

However, it's times like these in which it's great to be reminded that it's what I doIt isn't who I amEven if something were to go terribly wrong in the audition, for whatever reason, the world would keep on turning, I would still be able to keep on singing the next day, and the day after that. Also, I would be able to count on the support of my loved ones to be there for me, in my best and worst moments. (THAT is the most important thing of all!)

(P.S. The audition went well!)

How to give like a Medici without going broke

There is a lot of debate about whether the arts are declining in society, particularly with the seemingly-perpetual need for funds for the arts. Here is my take on the topic:

The arts (performing, visual, etc.) are a fundamental human need. They are incredibly important, because they bring beauty and creativity to the world. They give us permission to feel deeply. For this reason, the arts will always be with us, whichever form they take, and no one expresses that idea better than Karl Paulnack, in his welcome speech at the Boston Conservatory. (Here is a link to it.

However, the same cannot be said of your beloved arts organization or artist--national, local, or otherwise. They may not survive without your support. The New York City Opera, the Baltimore Opera Company, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet are just a few of the organizations that have had to close recently because of lack of funding. 

The need for patronage and funding in the arts is nothing new. In fact, funding is such a fundamental need in the arts, that it's difficult to talk about the names of artists in history, without talking about the patrons who made their work possible. Examples include Monteverdi and the Gonzagas, Diego Velázquez and King Philip IV of Spain, Haydn and the Esterhazys.

Now, you don't have to be a European aristocrat to help the arts in your communities! (I'm certainly not!) ;) There are several ways to support the arts:

One way to do so is through donations. Another great way is through membership (if available), since you will also receive exclusive benefits to the very arts organizations you love and value, anything from unlimited museum entry for the year to getting to meet the stars in that particular field. For example, I got to skip the miles-long lines to see the special Matisse exhibit recently at MoMA because of a Global membership there--not to mention the unlimited entry I get to the museum the rest of the year! I also had a Parterre seat at Carnegie Hall for only $20(!) to Stephanie Blythe's recital this month, because I'm a part of Notable Preludes there (at a "whopping" $20 for the year!) Membership is a fantastic way to get these kinds of benefits, while also helping your arts organizations.  
For those of you interested in higher-level memberships, you can frequently do the payments in installments, with less financial burden on you, and a major positive impact on your arts organization!

Most websites have information as to ways you can support your arts in your community, whether on a national or local level. This is often on their websites under "Support" or "Membership." Often, there are also match grants, which means that a trustee is matching every dollar you give, doubling the impact of your donation. This is a very easy way to make a larger impact, with little effort on your part!

Also, a lot of arts organizations apply for grants, which are awarded on the basis of participation. This means they are awarded on the basis of how many people have given to that organization, not how much they gave. This means that even giving an arts organization the amount you would spend on a cup of coffee would help open the door to hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant money. 

If you love the arts in your community, and want them to continue, please support them in any way you can. By doing so, you make sure that the specific art YOU love can continue. There is no amount so small that it wouldn't make a positive and significant impact. The arts help to bring the best of humanity, excellence, beauty, and vulnerability to the world. Please do what you can to help bring the arts in your life.

Four-letter words and high notes

When I started going out into the professional world of opera, I felt a lot of pressure to be the darling (so to speak!) of every audition I did. Regardless of the fact that I knew rationally that this goal was unrealistic, I still felt that pressure: it was part-and-parcel of the terror of putting myself out there in a major way. If I didn't get a competition, then it was certainly because I was doing something wrong. (*cue the ominous music!*)

Soon after, I was working on a duet in a coaching. I missed a high note, and, well, let's just say I then blurted out a very, very, VERY bad word. I felt absolutely mortified, and apologized profusely!

My coach didn't seem the slightest bit fazed by my cursing, or my missing that high note! To this day, she is still one of the biggest advocates for my career, and has written countless recommendation letters for me.

Funnily enough, that coaching was what the doctor ordered: it helped me realize that I should focus more on the people who love me even after missing a high note and blurting out an expletive, rather than people who don't hire me for whatever reason. While I definitely don't advocate cursing in the middle of lessons or coachings(!), I definitely think that the more one lets go of trying to be all things to all people, and being perfect, the better it is.

Now: Avanti!

Heartbreak, high notes, and more! (or, Road to recital, part 2)


I wrote last week about the recital I'm giving in Tel Aviv with Dan Deutsch on Saturday, March 7, and I'm excited to tell you all a bit about some of the pieces on my program, and what they mean to me.

(A couple of notes:  If you don't want to know in advance what some of the pieces on my recital program will be, then this blog post is full of spoilers.  Also, if you do want to know what the full program will be, and you happen to be in Tel Aviv on March 7, then come to the Felicja Blumental Music Center and you'll find out.). :)

Una voce poco fa (from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, by Rossini) - there aren't many better ways to start off a recital, than with one of the most delicious arias in the repertoire.  Rosina, the teenage protagonist of the opera, has just fallen in love with the mysterious Lindoro, and she swears he will be hers.  She then goes on to say that she is sweet, respectful, obedient, loving, BUT (that's in capital letters) if anyone gets in her way, she will be a viper!

You can see why I love singing that aria so much.

I'll also sing a song by Schubert, but it takes a much different, and darker, tone.  His song Sehnsucht (D. 516) is written with text by Mayrhofer, who frequently wrote poems about alienation.  In Sehnsucht, he contrasts those feelings of alienation with images of spring.  In Schubert's setting of the poem, those themes are heightened and more starkly contrasted.

Pace non trovo - few songs capture the volatile, conflicting and contrasting feelings of romantic love the way Liszt's setting of Petrarch's sonnet does.  Not surprisingly, this song is also one of the most extreme and operatic of the art song repertoire. The whole song describes love in opposites.  "I find no peace, but I am not inclined to war. ... I burn, yet I'm turned into ice. ... I fly to heaven, and yet I lie on the ground."  (Liszt's and Petrarch's tendencies to write in an extreme way--musically and poetically--go so well together, that if it weren't for the fact that they lived about 500 years apart, I would have said they were a great songwriting team.)

Debussy's group of songs, Ariettes Oubliées, has a special place in my heart.  This isn't only because his settings of Paul Verlaine's poems are second-to-none.  It is mainly because each of these songs paint unbearably vulnerable scenarios, whether about love, desperation, or wonder.

Israeli songs - Israeli songs are important to me since they've been a major part of me since I've been growing up.  For this reason, and also because the pairing of music and poetry in Israeli songs is to-die-for and should be heard even more frequently in concert, programming them as much as possible is a priority to me.

At the end of the concert, I'll be performing an aria that's new to me!  I won't give it away now, but I can promise that it will have heartache and high-notes!  (That's as potent a combination as any I know!)

I'm looking forward to even more recital prep and talk in the coming days, as well as the concert itself, of course!

Road to recital, part 1

In general, and particularly as I'm preparing my upcoming concert in Tel Aviv on March 7, one fundamental concept I keep coming back to is that singing departs from speech.  This is a crucial foundation, from a singing technique standpoint--rather than merely trying to manipulate my voice to creating sounds, I am singing all throughout my range from the foundation of my natural voice. (Of course, this is something I'm constantly working at, and for this reason, my singing warmups and practice sessions all start with simply speaking.) 

Most importantly, however, the concept of singing departing from speech doesn't merely inform my approach to technique, but also to what I have to say when I sing for an audience.  I believe expressing ourselves through phonation is one of the most fundamental needs many human beings have (whether speaking, singing, yelling, what-have-you.)  When I sing the texts that any of the brilliant poets or librettists have written (whether Verlaine, Sterbini, Goethe, or anyone else), I focus on whether I'm doing it from the perspective of saying the text honestly, as it means to me.  While this is a thrilling adventure, it can also be scary because it requires breaking away from trying to sing it "like insert-brilliant-singer's-name-here".  To sing a song the way someone else did it might seem safe, because that tried-and-true method worked for that particular artist.  That does not mean, however, that imitating that artist, no matter how brilliant she may be, would be healthy for my voice, and it likely wouldn't result in my being able to express myself honestly.  If I were to sing, taking the way I naturally speak as my point of departure, though, then it would open up the most vulnerable and honest performance from me possible, and this is the point of performing live for an audience.

On this note (no pun intended!), I'm thrilled to announce my upcoming concert in Tel Aviv this March, with more concerts TBA!  In no other category of performance (whether opera, musical theatre, or anything else) is the challenge of always trying to get the most honest performance out of myself more pertinent.  That is because, instead of playing one character over several hours, 1.  My recital programs are potpourris of various songs and arias which I have handpicked (along with the linguistic and stylistic challenges that come with them!).  Also, 2. these pieces have all resonated with me on some level, making my selection of them even more personal.

I will keep you posted about the road to getting this concert off the ground, and if you're in Tel Aviv, I hope to see you on March 7th for beautiful (honest!) music-making!

4 Realities about business and the arts

I recently started working for a world-renowned arts organization; I fundraise for it by calling its patrons.  I've been learning an immense amount by working for an established arts organization about how business and the arts intersect.  Here are just a few of the things I've learned, and some direct applications to singing.  (Spoiler alert:  I’ve found all the things I learned incredibly heartening!)

1.  The arts and business absolutely go together.
Arts organizations must have money for space, sets, artists’ salaries, and more.  Donors receive the satisfaction of keeping the arts alive, along with a huge number of benefits with membership, which could include anything from getting to skip long lines in museums, to meeting the stars in that field, and a multitude of other benefits. 
This brings me to one of the most important lessons I learned here, which is that being able to carve a future for and fund any art form begins with understanding its value both in dollar terms and on the spiritual level.  That is the jumping-off point for funding it, and bringing the arts to audiences.  Something happened recently at our offices that really reinforced this concept for me:  a few weeks ago, there was a performance given at the studios there.  The time the performance happened coincided with our work hours.  We were told we could go see the performance, and the time would be paid if we did.  The reason it would be paid was because loving and appreciating the performance would help make us better salespeople.  With that fundamental belief in place, I believe it's no accident that the organization is celebrating several decades of excellence.

Likewise, singers are far more likely to “sell” their performances to an audience or panel if they truly love and are emotionally invested in the pieces they are singing.  While they must sing pieces suited to their strengths and weaknesses, opera is unique in that it has an over-400-year-old music catalogue to choose from.  They can find arias that they love AND which suit them.  In turn, love of and belief in the material will shine through, which is necessary component to closing any sale.  If you believe in what you're bringing to people, then you stand a chance of making the sale and having a lasting impact.

2.  Everything one does in the arts helps bring them to more people.
People become members of an arts organization for a variety of reasons.  To give only two examples:  some buy a membership because they already love the art form, others because they are new to the art form and want to learn more about it.  Whatever the reason, reaching out to patrons helps to plant the seed of the arts, or to nurture it where it already exists.  This concept was made clear to me when I met with the Head of Membership at the offices for the first time.  He said to me that, along with fundraising, our goal is to inspire/encourage people to love the arts;  perhaps the people who come onboard as members at the entry level will become longtime patrons who will continue to love and support the arts for years to come.
Similarly, from a singer's point of view, someone may come to a performance of yours because they already love opera, or perhaps because they are new to it and want to learn more about it.  Regardless of why they came, each person who comes to that performance is exposed to opera and its power to heal.  This helps to build a community of people who experience that unique power and will nurture it for years to come.  Whether fundraising for the arts or performing operas and concerts, everything we do plays a role in building a future for the arts.

3.  Your best chance of success (sales or singing) is in being yourself.
One of the things we are constantly encouraged to do at the office is to give the fundraising sales pitch with our own voice.  Each agent takes a different approach from the others, yet we are all able to close big sales. Similarly, when I look back on my path as a singer, my biggest breakthroughs have come when I used, and was true to, my own voice, physically and metaphorically, regardless of whether or not it fit someone else’s preconception.

4.  What you do truly makes a difference.

In my first week at my job, one of my managers spoke on the phone with someone who was going through difficult medical treatment.  She told him that the time she spent in the theater was time in which she could keep her mind off her treatment.  Weeks later, we still talk about that phone call, and it puts things into perspective when we’re trying to convince someone to come onboard as a member.
Even though some people hang up on you in telefunding, and even though a singer gets rejections after auditions, what we do in the arts truly makes a meaningful difference in other people's lives.  People told me last summer that my concert in Tel Aviv helped them get their minds off the war that was taking place there at the same time.  (I blogged about that experience earlier.)  THIS is the difference we are capable of making in the lives of others through the arts, and these moments are major reminders that at the end of the day, performing really is not mainly about you. 
Ironically, though, that knowledge is what gives me new-found freedom to promote performances of mine and of my colleagues.  While it can sometimes feel uncomfortable "selling yourself" to an audience or panel of judges, I end up asking myself:  Is there anything more worthwhile to sell to people, than something which has made a profound and meaningful difference in people's lives, and continues to do so?

New Year's Resolution! (or not...)

I'm working on some new projects (more info TBA!), and I always find something interesting about practicing for them and preparing them.  In the process, it's easy to slip into a "not enough" mindset:

For example: "That wasn't good enough!" "Why didn't that note go well?" "That was too _______," "That wasn't _______ enough," etc. etc.

As you might imagine, this is definitely not a productive way to go about preparing any project!

In my experience, it's always been much more productive to take a different approach, such as applying the following in a practice session:

"I'm aligned along the rest of my range, and all I need to do to fix that note is to apply what I do with all the other notes to it. If I do that, I'll nail that note consistently in no time."

Admittedly, that mindset is something I continue to work at, but it's definitely worth it!

I believe that as a singer, I'm in the business of bringing both the power and vulnerability of the human voice to people--not just vocally, but emotionally as well.  The more I sing, the more convinced I am that practicing what I preach begins with how I talk to myself in the practice room.  I believe that if I work constructively, yet objectively, I can be much more vulnerable yet strong onstage than I would otherwise, while consistently improving my technique as well.

I'm personally not a big believer in New Year's resolutions because they too often can be overly goal-oriented, at the expense of the process of reaching for that goal.  (I fully support going after what you want!  I simply believe in keeping the process in mind as well.) Instead, I believe that if I approach any pursuit in life, career-oriented or not, with a constructive, objective, yet positive approach--working on cultivating what I DO want vs fighting against what I DON'T want--then the outcome will be just as good, and often better, than anything I could have anticipated.  I've always been much more successful in my pursuits when I worked with myself, rather than against myself.

With all of this in mind, I wish you a happy and productive 2015!

Now, off to the Met auditions!  :)