Sunday, April 10, 2022

Happily Ever After

I've never loved fairy tales. 

I mean, I don't mind fanciful stories, cartoonish villains, and singing woodland creatures. It's mostly just the concept of "happily ever after" that I can't get past. 

Fairy tale characters generally face challenges, endure struggles, and overcome overwhelming odds, which can make for some great storytelling. But then we're supposed to believe that, after all that, they just go on living happily ever after? Even as a kid, I knew that was a load of crap. It almost implies that, once you meet some "difficulty quota," life just becomes easy and carefree for the remainder of your days. 

What I always want to know is, what happens to these characters next? Once they face adversity and triumph, what do they do with the rest of their lives? How did that adversity change them? To me, that's when stories start to get good. Otherwise, it's just triumph for triumph's sake—cheap thrills and a fake, tidy ending. 

Over the last two years, I think the question I have heard most often (and wondered the most myself) is, "When can we get back to normal?" All of the other questions related to pandemic protocols (When can we meet in person? When can I take off this mask? When can we stop testing?) are really just more detailed versions of "When can we get back to normal?"

The truth is, I don't think we will ever go back to the normal we knew before. We're just not the same people now as we were then. We've been through the swamp and the magic forest and battled plenty of dragons. So even if we go back to the circumstances we were used to from before, we'll approach them differently now because we're different. 

I think we also get a false sense in academic theatre that everything should have a natural ending. Shows close. Semesters end. That's often how we know it's time to move on and do something different. But most things in life don't ever reach such an obvious conclusion. 

Therefore, if we can never really go back to who we were, and if there is no firm drop of the curtain signaling the end of how things were, at least we can move forward as who we newly are. And there is happiness in that (and fear and excitement and trepidation and eagerness). 

Seniors, I'm sure you will all be inundated with one question in the coming weeks and months: What are you going to do next? In fact, some of you are probably getting that question already. I understand why people are asking. You're reaching the last natural ending of your college career, so it's time to do something different. It's logical that people would inquire as to what that might be. 

I'm more interested in your answer to a different question, though. How are you going to do what you do next? Now that you have faced challenges, endured struggles, and overcome overwhelming odds—like every good fairy tale character—how have you been changed? How will that impact the way you approach the next chapter of your life? 

We've had quite the adventure over the last few years. Regardless of whether you're coming back, moving on, or still deciding what story to start next, I'm glad we could fight the dragons together. 

Much love.


Sunday, March 27, 2022

Performing vs. Assessing

Two blogs ago, we discussed the differences between practicing and performing. In short, practicing involves stretching yourself, trying new things, and making exploratory sounds, whereas performing (and the practices leading up to a performance) involves settling into your choices and doing the best you can with your current skill set. 

Then, in the last blog, we discussed how non-judgmental assessment (through awareness and inherent feedback) can help us silence our inner critics.

Now let's talk about the differences between performing and assessing. To start, let's go back to the dictionary. 

Oxford Languages defines performing as carrying out, accomplishing, or fulfilling an action, task, or function. It also, and more obviously to our purposes, defines performing as "presenting to an audience." I actually prefer the first definition, though. When we perform, we are essentially looking to fulfill or carry out what we have already accomplished during our practicing and rehearsing—we're not trying to accomplish something new. As I have said before, we shouldn't expect magic to happen when we perform. We should expect an "average performance" where we deliver a presentation that is as close to what we normally do as possible. 

Assessing, on the other hand, involves evaluating the quality and effectiveness of our singing. This is a crucial part of practice, since it informs us as to which aspects of our singing we need to focus on building and improving. 

Performing and assessing, therefore, are different tasks. Too often, in my estimation, instead of doing one (performing) and then the other (assessing), we try to do them both at the same time. The trouble is that human beings are notoriously bad at multitasking (even though we think we're great at it). As the Cleveland Clinic points out, when we multitask we become less efficient and more prone to making mistakes. In essence, instead of doing one thing well, we do more than one thing poorly. 

There is an appropriate analogy here. As explained in The Musician's Mind by Lynn Helding, the body's sympathetic nervous system is responsible for ramping us up when we are in the presence of danger or, unfortunately, when we are experiencing musical performance anxiety (MPA). Thankfully, we also have the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down and restore us to a resting state. It's fascinating to note, however, that these two systems can't function at the same time. In order to calm down, we first have to turn off the system that is revving us up before we can turn on the system that will start settling us down. Helding uses the analogy of taking your foot off the gas pedal before you start to press on the brake. 

In a similar way, we can't really perform and assess our performing at the same time. That's multitasking, or the equivalent of pressing the gas and the brake together. So if you're performing and you catch yourself assessing or judging the sound you just made, you're no longer performing. You have switched into assessment mode. And chances are, if you noticed that shift, so did your audience. 

Of course, you have to practice the way you intend to perform. Therefore, you need to practice performing without assessing. Odds are, when you finish your performance, you will still be able to think back and give an honest analysis of what just happened. It takes practice to really commit to monotasking and keeping your focus entirely on your performing while you are in the moment. There will be time for assessment later, I promise. 

As we get closer to the end-of-the-semester juries, consider practicing monotasking. Just perform. Then assess. Then repeat. 

Now go practice.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Using assessment, awareness, and inherent feedback to silence the judges

As a voice professor, W. Stephen Smith hopes every lesson he teaches brings himself one step closer to being obsolete. As he says, "My goal is to teach my students how to teach themselves and work myself out of a job." (as quoted in The Singer's Audition & Career Handbook by Claudia Friedlander, p.44)

Encouraging students to develop their own self-diagnostic skills is a big part of motor-learning theory. As singers' abilities increase and become more consistent, they are less reliant on instructions ("augmented feedback") from their teachers. Instead, they can first consult the internal sensory information they get when they sing ("inherent feedback"). In the Journal of Singing, U of U professor Lynn Maxfield describes the two primary types of inherent feedback: proprioceptive and exteroceptive.
"Proprioceptive feedback is that sensory information received from sources within the learner’s own body (primary sources being sensory receptors imbedded within the body tissues), while exteroceptive feedback refers to sensory information received from sources outside the body, the primary sources of which are vision and hearing."
Of course, as we discussed last semester, students can only benefit from their own inherent feedback if they are actually paying attention to what is happening while they are singing and not just switching into auto-pilot. 

Once singers do get that inherent feedback, the next thing to do is assess, which involves evaluating the quality of the singing. In The Inner Game of Music, authors Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey describe a similar process, encouraging musicians to use awareness. As they write, 
"Awareness shows us what feels and works best for can even locate specific problem areas, discover solutions, increase our options, and facilitate instant changes. Not only can awareness help us through technical musical challenges of many kinds, it can also enhance our ability to be swept up in the music, to become one with it." (p.37-38). 

Therefore, honest assessment based on awareness and inherent feedback can both identify problems and reveal potential solutions. An obstacle may arise, however, if that assessment is tinged with judgment

In its official definition, there is nothing inherently negative about judgment. According to Oxford Languages, "to judge" is simply to "form an opinion or conclusion about." But, as all singers have likely experienced, there is a more sinister side to self-judgment. As described by author Eloise Ristad in A Soprano on Her Head, "We all have inner judges who yammer at the edge of our consciousness, often intimidating and immobilizing us." 

If we negatively or harshly judge our own singing, we move beyond mere assessment and may enter the realm of self-consciousness. Of course, being "conscious of self" is really what inherent feedback is all about, which is the heart of Green and Gallwey's idea of awareness. But a second definition of self-consciousness is to feel "uncomfortably nervous about or embarrassed by what other people think about you." The irony of this form of self-consciousness is that we're not really focused on "self" at all. Instead, we're focusing on what other people may (or may not) be thinking about us. This can take up a lot of head space and cause quite a distraction while we're singing. 

Luckily, Green and Gallwey offer a strategy: "By accepting distractions and then consciously choosing to focus our attention elsewhere, we can increase our awareness of the music—and lessen the amount of frustration we feel at the distractions." (p.38)

In the article on the stages of motor learning cited above, one indication that skills have moved into the third and final "automatic stage" is that the skill can be executed in different settings, in different situations, and even among distractions. And what could be more distracting than our own self-consciousness? To treat judgments and self-consciousness as distractions, however, may allow us to strategize around them. Once again, Green and Gallwey offer help: 

"...we need to leave our assumptions and ready-made judgments on one side and pay attention to what is actually going on. We can choose to put our attention where we want instead of leaving it on the distractions." (p.38)

In other words, giving more focus to inherent feedback and awareness may crowd out the distractions of "judges who yammer at the edge of our consciousness," thus allowing us to "enhance our ability to be swept up in the music, to become one with it." 

Despite the best efforts of teachers like W. Stephen Smith, we may always benefit from the augmented feedback that trusted teachers provide. But honing our awareness and trusting our own inherent feedback may help us build technique and silence the judges. 

Now go practice. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Practicing vs. Performing

As you have probably noticed, I often quote professor, author, and vocologist Lynn Helding in this blog, and for good reason. She is widely recognized in the field of voice pedagogy for her work applying cognitive science to singing.

One of the topics I have seen her discuss many times is the difference between learning (or practicing) and performing. As she says:  

Learning is…
-A process that takes time (weeks, months, years)
-Dynamic (requires effort and attention)
-Messy (doesn’t follow a straight line)
-Destabilizing (as old habits are undone)

Performance is…
-A display of what we can do
-A reflection of where we are at one moment in time
-Prepared with an audience in mind

This distinction is crucial, particularly because I find that singers often approach practice sessions as performances as opposed to opportunities for exploration and learning. 

For instance, if your practice sessions are all about making beautiful sounds 100% of the time, you may be performing instead of practicing. If you are overly conscious of the fact that your roommate or family member in the next room can hear you when you're singing, you may be performing instead of practicing. If you're running through your songs without going back to work on trouble spots or to explore different sounds and intentions, you may be performing instead of practicing. 

Of course, we do have to practice performing. When you have a performance coming up, you probably need to stop exploring new options, start settling into your choices, and begin refining what you're doing. Your practice sessions then should be about consistently repeating the choices and intentions you will use in your performance. That's the best time for full run-throughs of your songs. 

But when we are practicing with the intention of building skills and capabilities, THAT'S when we need to address long-standing inefficiencies, work systematically on all aspects of technique, thoughtfully problem-solve, and have the patience to stick to the frustratingly long road to progress. 

Then when we do perform, we can step away from this tedious but necessary process and lean into what we CAN do at that moment. 

In your practice sessions, do you ever catch yourself performing when you mean to be practicing? How can you bring yourself back into the concentrated, effortful work of practicing in those moments? 

Now go practice. 

Sometimes practicing can be like walking through fog, when the goal in front of you is difficult to see.
But consistent steps forward will lead you to the destination. 

Sunday, February 6, 2022

If I Could Be Like Mike

Growing up in Iowa, a state devoid of any major-market sports, my family rooted for the teams out of Chicago, which was our closest big city. Every once in a while, we got to see some winners. The Cubs won division titles in baseball in '84 and '89 and the '85 Bears were Super Bowl Champs. But none of that compared to the success of the Chicago Bulls who, led by Michael Jordan, claimed six NBA titles in the '90s. 

Naturally, having celebrated each of those titles as a fan, I consider Jordan to be the GOAT—hands down, undisputed (no disrespect to Kobe or LeBron). In the recent docuseries on Netflix, The Last Dance, it's clear that Jordan is universally acknowledged as the best player of his era. One other revelation in the series is just how hard he worked in practice. It sounds cliché, but he was literally the first one on the court and the last one to leave. He put in more reps and more hours which, coupled with his natural abilities, was undoubtedly a major part of his success. 

Of course, in basketball, there can be quite a difference between practicing and playing in an actual game. It's one thing to drain free throws in practice when you're shooting 20 or 30 in a row. It's another thing to do it in the fourth quarter of a tied game. Therefore, basketball practices (as I remember from my illustrious 7th-9th grade playing career) often include drills designed to give players reps on the fundamentals and then scrimmages where players can practice those skills in game-type situations. 

If athletes want to develop a basic basketball skill, like the ability to make a 15-foot jump shot, they would first get lots of repetitions taking those shots from a variety of angles (in front of the hoop, from the left side, from the right side). Then they can vary their practice by taking shots closer to the basket and farther away before coming back to the 15-footer. They can add even more variety by sprinting up and down the court between baskets to see how it feels to take the shot with an elevated heart rate. Then players can set up scrimmage situations, where they take the same shot with a defender in the way. All of that will hopefully lead to a greater ability to execute that skill during an actual game, in front of a stadium full of fans. 

How can that relate to singing? 

Let's say you want to belt the B-flat at the end of "Cabaret" (in this key). Rather than just singing the song over and over, you'd probably want to start by vocalizing up to and beyond that B-flat in different ways: on scales, on arpeggios, on different vowels, as an SOVT exercise, in head voice, in mix, in chest voice, etc. Then you may gradually want to extend the amount of time you sustain that note: four seconds, six seconds, eight seconds. Then you can work on an excerpt of the song that includes the final note and the phrases that lead into it, getting some repetitions outside of the context of the full song. Then you can do it with a variety of emotional prompts that may work with the character at that moment in the show. After all of that, running the song from the beginning will allow you to see how that note feels after singing the entire song. Of course, then you would want to sing it in front of people. Ideally, it would first be for a small group, like in a masterclass or studio setting. Then maybe a bigger group, like in Dem Lab. Then it may be ready for use in an audition or more formal performance setting. 

We could extend this even further to consider singing the entire role of Sally Bowles in a full production of Cabaret. First, you'd do it in rehearsals, then in run-throughs, then in previews, then for a run of performances. 

Whether it's a jump shot, a B-flat, a song, or a role, the process is the same. Identify what you're trying to accomplish, build exercises that specifically address that need, work regularly on that skill, then start doing it in increasingly high-stakes situations. 

As MJ says, "The minute you get away from fundamentals—whether its proper technique, work ethic, or mental preparation—the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you're doing...If you do the work, you get rewarded. There are no shortcuts in life."

How has your practice been this week? Is there a skill you're wanting to develop that we can specifically target? 

Now go practice.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Predictable Repeatability: Average Performances

We practice to improve our skills. We practice to learn. We practice to develop consistency. 

We practice to give average performances. 

Wait, what? 

Sure, we practice so that our skills are above average (or, hopefully, outstanding). And we practice so that our performances are above average (or, hopefully, outstanding). So why would I say that we practice to give average performances? Allow me to explain. 

As author Lynn Helding says, "The evidence that a thing is learned is its repeatability" (p.76). As we have discussed in previous blogs, just because you do a thing once doesn't mean that thing is now part of your skill set. It isn't technically "learned" until you can do it often, with consistency, under different circumstances, and in different settings—in short, when the skill is repeatable. 

Therefore, we should practice to make our skills repeatable and our performances predictable. When we get to that point, we won't have to walk into an audition room thinking, "I hope this goes well." We will have practiced enough that we basically know how it will go.  

I think there is always a secret wish that something magic will happen once we get on stage. We hope that everything will somehow click in ways they never have before. That high note will rock like it never has, we'll make it through long phrases without needing to breathe, we'll suddenly be dramatically connected to the character in a way we've never experienced. 

OK, maybe that will happen. But probably not, especially if it's never worked for you that way in the practice room. 

If you do have a "magical" moment where something clicks in a way that is new (whether that's in a practice session, in a masterclass, or even in a performance), that can be the first step toward learning a new skill. You obviously have to experience something for a first time before you can build on that. But, as Helding reminds us, "Exposure is not learning...While exposure may be the necessary first step in the learning process it must be followed by practice in order to encode it in memory and make it habitual" (p.42-43)

Therefore, once you have been exposed to something new, or experienced something new, it's crucial that you keep working on it: immediately after you first experience it and then often after that. If you wait too long to try to repeat it, you may not be able to access it again or it may not be there in exactly the same way. 

Then, when that skill has been practiced to the point of being predictably repeatable, you can head into a performance knowing that your result will probably be the average of what happens when you're in the practice room. It may go better than expected once in a while and, sadly, sometimes it's worse than expected. But most of the time, it will be an average of what you normally do on a day-to-day basis. 

So, maybe we shouldn't ask ourselves after a performance or an audition, "Did I give my absolute best performance?" Maybe instead we should ask, "Was that an honest reflection of what I do most days?" If not, too bad. Keep practicing and you'll have a better chance that it WILL reflect your average next time. If it WAS an honest reflection of what you can do on the daily, then I would call that a successful performance. You have done what you know you can do, shown who you are, and hopefully had fun in the process.

Related: Here's a fun video exploring the "law of averages" that can apply to a lot of what we just discussed as well as other aspects of musical theatre training (especially AUDITIONS!). 

How has your practicing been in these first couple of weeks? How are you doing on your goals? Do you need to make any adjustments now that we're on week three? 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Motivation follows action

Happy New Year! Back at it...

Every year a lot of people adopt the New Year's resolution of spending less time on social media. Ironically, they often announce this resolution on social media. We've all heard plenty about the negative elements of social media and, to be sure, there are real concerns. But, for all of the gossiping, celebrity worshipping, and time wasting that happens, it can also be really great. 

Admittedly, I don't do many of the socials. I don't TikTok or Snapchat and I just today learned that Twitch is a thing. So I wouldn't exactly call myself an "influencer." (A ridiculous title if ever there was one.) I do have a Twitter account that I mostly use to read about sports or to yell at the Utah Transit Authority when the TRAX trains are delayed. But, like any good middle-aged person, I love me some Facebook. 

Besides being able to stay in touch with friends I don't get to see regularly, the main reason I like it is to read the articles, essays, and memes that my friends share. I have some really smart Facebook friends, so I could easily fill a day reading all of the clever and worthwhile content they post. 

One of those smart friends shared this post by author Brad Stulberg

I wasn't familiar with Stulberg before seeing this post but a lot of his writing seems pretty applicable to the work that we performing artists do. 

As the pandemic raged through the fall semester of 2020, I found that a lot of students (and teachers) were struggling with motivation. People were finding it difficult to work toward goals, to practice regularly, and to just keep up with everyday work and obligations. When a survey from the University of Utah confirmed that more than half of our students and faculty were struggling with personal motivation, I decided to dedicate all of my spring semester blogs to exploring ways we can motivate ourselves, especially in the practice room. Given that the pandemic is still (or again) impacting our lives, Stulberg's commentary on motivation may be important to keep in mind as we head into another semester. 

In your syllabus, I recommend that you divide your daily vocal practice into two or three different sessions. There are lots of reasons for that but the most pertinent one relates directly to Stulberg's post. If you know that your practice session is only set to be 15 minutes, you're more likely to go practice than if you have blocked off a full hour, which can feel overwhelming. The sneaky part is that once you get practicing, you start to find your groove. Suddenly, 15 minutes doesn't feel that long and you may decide to add on another 15 minutes and another 15 after that. 

For this semester, you may experiment with the idea that you don't actually have to motivate yourself to practice every day. You just have to start practicing and see where it leads. Maybe the motivation will follow. 

For this first blog, share two goals you have for the semester: one goal for what you want to have accomplished after the first month of school and one goal for where you want to be by the end of the semester. 

Now go practice. Or just start practicing! 

Sunrise on a new semester.