Yesterday I mused over how my cat, Spike, thinks he owns the world. He most definitely has a vested stake in my music studio, where he likes to summon his feline ancestry and pretend he is much larger than he is. Since this week is hellacious (my student’s midterms, a chamber series for which I’m on the board is having their season premiere, and I’m singing at the inauguration of my college’s new president and “practice” seems to be an elusive entity), I’m going light this week.
Today’s Spike Shaming was prompted by my water glass, which he likes to get all up in when he thinks I’m not watching. I never drink from glasses that have been left unattended in my studio. Here’s why:
Just my cat, literally all up in my business.
Also, during one of Spike’s secret speakeasy quests, what he thought was water was actually clear pedialyte, which I was downing due to a recent run-in with eggs (which I did not know I was allergic to at the time). Spike did not enjoy drinking briny water.
Spike is my cat. He’s getting up there in age (14-ish). I consider him a staple of my musical life because he was given to me by my choir director when I was 18. One day in school, teach said he had 24 hours to get rid of this cat or his landlord was going to cut him a new one. Because I have no self-control (and neither does my cat-loving mother), I begged my mom to take him (I didn’t have to try very hard), and thus began the 10+-year saga of Spike.
Spike is an indoor fellow, and spends a lot of his time in my basement studio. Because the median ground-to-belly ratio for the household animals around here is a solid five inches, Spike ends up getting smacked in the face a lot with young, fresh, over-eager dachshund tail, leaving our feline in a consistently senile mood. He’s perfectly content to wallow in the studio shadows. The dogs aren’t allowed in the studio because I prefer the urine-soaked carpets tobe somewhere other than under the $10,000 instrument (read: dachshunds are impossible to housebreak for life. It’s a real thing. Look it up…and don’t judge).
As a result, Spike enjoys a good realtor role-play, as in, he owns all the subterranean territory of the house. If you move anything in the studio, he’ll show you what’s what. Another idiosyncrasy: I frequently find myself apologizing to unsuspecting studio guests who think they can employ regular cat-petting techniques on Spike and walk away unscathed. No, no. He’s a fickle little being. It’s also not uncommon for me to walk in on what appears to be nothing short of a one-cat party because he’s 14 and still kicking.
As of late, I’ve tried to catch Spike in some of these compromising positions while in my studio, which wasn’t very difficult, and have amassed a mini-blackmail-arsenal that I’m going to share with you in a small series.
Several days ago, I gave an end-of-lesson incentive to one of my squirmy little pianists. If she could get through some focused music reading, she would be rewarded with sixty whole secondsat the whiteboard at the end of her lesson. She chose to write about how great her “techear” is. The techear is me, which makes me beam, but also makes me want to release my inner grammar nazi, which isn’t so inner these days. My grandma passed on her penchant for proper language to me. She is a retired school principal, and a PhD at that. She’s of the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” school of thought (for example, “where is it at?”…ew). My grandma’s comical solution is to just add a comma and the word “asshole” after the fact, which straightens things out (“where’s it at, asshole?”) but probably doesn’t leave us in people’s best graces. I love my grandma.
I digress. This week, I took the whiteboard thing a step further and all of my students got some one-on-one time in with some infamously odoforous dry-erase markers. My only parameter was they had to draw appropriate things, which unfortunately meant no racist jokes, but believe you me, I was thinking them and only half-chuckling in real life.
If I were in public schools, I’d be made to show exactly which state and national standards this activity addressed by playing a thrilling round of Buzzwords In Flight. You know, that game teachers playto appease the latest political-educational trends and prove that they are doing things other than counting M&Ms and watching Frozen in school. This is the game where the winning terms are “research-backed,” “assessment,” “differentiated instruction” or, everyone’s recent favorite, “common core.” It really is all about the students, isn’t it?
You will notice that the reigns of my career are held by none other than yours truly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So as it turns out, I just don’t care if having my students draw pictures on a dry-erase board is trite. This was for fun, an open-ended experiment that helped paths emerge. I also figured it was high time to break up the monotony of my student’s routines; they’ve been hitting the sight-reading pretty hard as of late. Plus, I personally am driven to change up my teaching or do something new every 5-6 weeks or so. Otherwise, it becomes increasingly difficult to silence the voices in my head telling me to bang my skull against the wall until I bleed out.
I don’t do well with repetition (unless it’s practicing)…
The sweet and freakishly accurate (and totally eyeballed, I might add) Disney princess caricature (upper right)
The Lovely Bunch of Coconuts lyrics (still feel like that song might be about boobs)
The Tardis. The doctor is proud.
The word “glowing-ier.” This is an adjective I used to describe what I heard, resonance-wise, to one of my adult students, Polly. My exact words were “that was a lot more…glowing…y….er..than last time.” We immortalized the term. It’s whiteboard official.
Pondering future variations of this experiment have gotten me thinking on building studio culture. The wheels are only just turning, but the possibilities are endless.
One of my teacher goals this year was to get my students to NOT feel a total cease-fire of all nervous system functionality when they perform for others. Also known as Nervous System: CODE BLUE:
Sweaty palms: when the salt output could raise the sea level of the Mediterranean
Stone-cold, deer-in-the-headlights, unflinching eye contact with an invisible apparatus in the upper right-hand corner of the room for the entirety of the piece being performed
Jell-o knees and jazzercise-shifty-feet (grapevine to the right!)
Shaky hands from 2-oz adreneline shots, Jagermeister-style
Never-before practiced musical stylings, like experimentation with a completely random tempo, attempts at a half-made up melody, and breaths in weird places (usually the middle of words)
Memory lapses on simple words like “the,” “an,” or pronouns like “he” or “she,” ultimately leading to the downfall of all phrases for the remainder of the song. Damn you, muscle memory.
Don’t worry, kids. I was there, too. I still am, sometimes.
In order to remedy the Great Stage Sickness of the Century, I started requiring my students to attend low-stakes performance opportunities where they could dress down, use music if necessary, stop and start when needed, etc. Some of these events are closed to students and involve workshopping or other activities. This last event was an informal showcase open to family and friends. I hired an indestructible accompanist so I could sit back and really watch and listen. I learn more in these opportunities when I’m not consumed with front-line “combat” accompanying.
My favorite moment, by far, was when my older, late-intermediate pianist played a theme and variations. She struggles with performance anxiety, and I encouraged her to take a bit of time in between each variation so she could gather her bearings. She did not do this right away, but clearly remembered when, halfway through her second variation, which started off a little rough, she shook her head slightly, then quietly and ironically whispered the word “notes” under her breath. As in, play thyselves. Do as you are told. Behave, you silly notes. Been there.
PEDAGOGUE DAY! More like Pedagogue YAY! Sorrynotsorry.
Nothing fires me up like repertoire. It’s like damn, I can’t wait to get my hands on that First Book of Mezzo Solos – Parts 1, 2, and 3 – complete in ONE VOLUMEfor $30 (did you know they combined them? I peed my pants a little, too). That is a fine-looking set.
However, I feel like every voice teacher owns the same books. There’s about 25 titles that exist in every vocal library worth its salt, when in actuality there’s a WHOLE WORLD of literature that exists outside the “First Book Of” and “Singer’s Musical Theater” series. If I had an extra $500, I would buy everything on my Amazon wish list right now, and probably only be set for a short while because I’m a lizard with ADD.
The truth is, I’m only in my sixth year of private teaching and I’m already worn for the classics. I just don’t want to teach the same songs over and over again, which is selfish, yet necessary for my sanity. I tend to re-live my research glory days vicariously throughmy ongoing quest for fresh repertoire.
So last year, I crowdsourced my voice teacher friends for some alternatives. I’ve found myself recently putting the proverbial studio mileage on some very unexpected volumes, some of which have some trulyquestionable covers (don’t judge – you know already are). But the content really can’t be beat. Here they are:
Thanks for the kick-ass cover art, Hal Leonard. How did you manage to find photos of my 9th birthday party? If you’re poking fun like I am, you shouldn’t. Children are the future. The kids on the cover are probably Tommy Hilfiger models now. Or astro-physicists.
My friend Audra recommended this, and I’ve used it so much that I don’t have to force the spine backwards anymore to get it to sit open. The defining moment for any music teacher. There’s 66 songs in here; a good mix of Disney, classic musical theater picks, and a few gems that are hard to find in print, but really great teaching pieces, like “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon. Don’t laugh. It’s good for solfege practice and lies in a moneyrange for 13-year-olds.
I’ve put this one to use with a lot of my youngish voices, but have found it particularly great for my developing male singers (If I have to teach Ragtime Cowboy Joeone more time…). I’ve assigned “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King, “Seize the Day” from Newsies, and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story (which has a weird range for girls, but is great for those pubescent voice-crackers, down the octave…thanks, Randy Newman, for your otherworldly vocal timbre). For less than $20, this really can’t be beat.
Do not let the freakish cover portrait fool you. He’s not actually a vampire.
Have you ever seen the movie Gosford Park? The character of Ivor Novello is literally written into the movie. Novello (1893-1951) was an actual songwriter and actor whose pieces are kind of pre-Cole Porter, semi-reminiscent of operetta (The Merry Widow comes to mind), with a whiff of jazz thrown in there for good measure. All of his songs sound alike, but are glorious, schmaltzy testaments to love (read: waltzes and rubato. Lots of it). His pieces demand a certain technique and agility, which is why I assigned “Waltz of My Heart” to one of my older sopranos. You’ll need some moderately-advanced piano chops to accompany, though. For some godforsaken reason, the commercial chord symbols are underneath the left hand, and not above the melody, so there’s a learning curve, but the sonorities are worth it. I don’t use this a ton, mainly because I just don’t have the voices for it, but every time I whip it out, I can’t help but sightread my way through the entire book and then promptly arrange a dream recital: Novello In Song. Don’t mind if I do.
I use this book to kill spiders. It’s the only one I trust to get the job done, and rivals the Norton Anthology of Western Music in thickness and weight. There’s over 160 songs in here, which averages out to be ~6-7 cents a song. Most garage-sale items cost more than that, unless you’re some sort of haggle-wizard that employs glamour techniques, a la True Blood. Or you’re an actual thief, in which case, you’re going to hell. See you there.
Aside from its +7 arachnid-destroying abilities, there’s truly some fine specimens in here. Lots of patriotic stuff and selections from American movies and musicals, 1910-1950, plus a handful of songs everyone should know, like “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” “Bicycle Built for Two,” and “Sidewalks of New York.” This is truly great for the younger kids, but I’ve been using the songs a lot lately as exercises for sight-reading, solfege, and warmups. Worth every penny (or, as the case may be, all 7 of them).
True story: I assigned the song “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (and Smile, Smile, Smile)”(the magic begins at 0:45) without really reading through all the words. Upon perusal, I discovered the word “fag,” was, in fact, employed…as in, the old-fashioned term for cigarette. I may have been in one of those late-at-night states of being, the kind where my day’s caffeine supply was long-since depleted and I couldn’t see past the time and key signatures, which suited my needs at the time. Whoops. I had to put that piece to rest. Even if I explained the archaic reference to my 12-year-old male student, there is no way I can make that work. “Gay?” Usually manageable, depending on the context. “Fag?” Infinitely less feasible.
God bless the Brits! I bought this less than 6 months ago and have since assigned no less than five of its sixteen pieces to my singers. It’s a newer publication (2010), and has arrangements by some of our favorite neighborhood contemporary composers like Bob Chilcott, Mack Wilberg (Mormon, but not British), and John Rutter. Some of the songs, interestingly, are adapted into solos from choral arrangements. This made me harumph with skepticism for a bit, but I was not disappointed. My favorite pieces, by far, are Chilcott’s arrangements of “Be Thou My Vision” and “Irish Blessing.” This book should be a staple for choir directors and/or any regular involved party in the wedding and funeral music industry. I, for one, frequent funerals. Take that as you may.
So that’s what I’m teaching with these days. What are you using, Ye Olde Vocal Grandmasters?