Violetta fitness

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.

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!