Sunday, January 22, 2023

How and how often to watch your videos

Last semester, we talked about how important self-evaluation can be, especially by watching yourself on video. Here, we'll talk more specifically about how to do that effectively. 

When watching your videos (whether clips of your practicing, self-tapes for auditions, or Dem Lab performances), you should ask the same questions you would consider whenever evaluating anyone else's singing performance. What works about this performance? What do I like? What is making this effective? What is not working? What is getting in the way of more authentic communication? What could be done differently to make it more successful? Any amateur observer can say "I like this," or "I don't like this." But, as theatre artists, we should be curious as to the why. 

When evaluating your practice clips, I'd recommend watching the videos soon (if not immediately) after you record them. That way you can see and hear what you are doing while you still have a tactile memory of how you created the sounds. If you liked what you saw on the video, try the same thing a few more times to solidify what you did. You can even use this tactic to record yourself singing a phrase of music two or three times in a row but in different ways. Then you can watch to see which version you prefer and, once again, recreate that sound while it's still fresh in your mental and physical memory. If you watch these videos for the first time even a day later, you won't have the same visceral memory and it will be more difficult to recreate those sounds in the same way. 

For performances, like Dem Lab videos, I'd recommend the opposite and instead allow more time to elapse before watching the videos (days, if not weeks). That way, you won't have such strong memory of the feelings and sensations you were experiencing in the moment. This will allow you to evaluate the video more as an outside observer. When you aren't watching with the same physical memory from having just sung, you're better able to give yourself an overview of your performance instead of being more focused on a single element of your singing, like with the practice videos. 

Notice that I'm using the words "evaluate" or"criticize" when it comes to watching yourself. And I absolutely didn't use the words "tear down" or "obsess over" either. You can observe and evaluate by asking the questions above with a true sense of curiosity in order to identify what you are doing well and to strategize about how to improve upon the less effective elements. As I've said previously, feel free to tell your inner critic to shut the hell up!

Remember, the flip side of being your own worst critic is that you can also be our own best evaluator. No one will be able to watch your own performances with as much insight as you. You know what you were thinking at the time. You know what it feels like inside to make those sounds. You have the best idea of how you might recreate or tweak those sounds. The rest of us can guess or make assumptions, but you're the only one who knows. Use that information to your advantage. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Nothing but time

Time stops when suddenly you see her

Time stops and what you thought you knew changes

And life beyond this moment is better, bigger... 

    -"Time Stops" from Tuck Everlasting 

I've always found it fascinating how differently we can perceive time. When I was a kid, sitting through an hour of church seemed to take forever, but one hour of watching cartoons was over in no time. As an adult, I've noticed that Saturday and Sunday seem to move faster than any other days of the week, for some reason. 

One of the most common phrases I hear from seniors in their first voice lesson of the school year is, "I can't believe I'm a senior already!" Despite taking classes for three years, it always comes as a bit of a surprise looking back and realizing how quickly that time has passed. But many of those same students have also expressed that time feels like it's crawling by when they're in the thick of a semester with long days of classes and rehearsals. 

I sometimes hear ads on the radio for a company called 3 Day Kitchen & Bath. Their pledge to customers is that they can do an entire renovation of a kitchen or bathroom in three days or less—a job that can typically take weeks. I'm no contractor, but that seems really fast. I wonder if those workers feel like time is moving more quickly as their deadlines approach than it does when they're at the start of a project. 

The beginning of the semester presents a good opportunity to reflect on how we use our time. In a previous blog, we talked about how time can be viewed as a commodity, evidenced by the phrase "spending time." Regardless of whether we invest our time or waste our time, we all experience the same number of hours in the day. 

I decided to do a bit of math when it comes to our time together. Each of you receive 12 voice lessons per semester at 45 minutes each, adding up to 540 minutes of lesson time per semester. This means there are 1,080 minutes of lessons in each two-semester school year and 4,320 minutes over the eight semesters of a four-year degree. Divide that by 60 minutes per hour and it adds up to exactly 72 hours, or the equivalent of three days. All of our weekly lessons in all the semesters of an entire degree, when all is said and done, only amount to three days of time. 

How are we spending that time? Three days is apparently enough time to completely demolish, renovate, and rebuild an entire kitchen. Is it enough time to build the vocal skills and artistry you want for yourself? Are we both doing all we can to maximize our time together? 

As we get going in the new semester, let's consider how we're using our lesson time. If we make the most of our time together, you will be better able to make the most of your practice time when we're apart. Review this blog from 2019 about establishing effective goals. Then let's decide how we can best prioritize our three days of time to get you where you want to be. 

Now go practice.

Sunday, November 27, 2022


Every field has its deep, philosophical questions. It can be worth the time, when we are engrossed in the details of our practice and our performances, to stop for a moment and ponder some of the more existential questions related to our art. 

In a book titled Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, author and scholar Christopher Small asks two such questions: "What is the meaning of music?" and "What is the function of music in human life?" Before offering a response, however, he recommends a shift in our thinking. In particular, he suggests we entertain the idea that "music is not a thing at all but an activity, something that people do."

Small explains how, in the Western music tradition, we often equate the word "music" with "works of music" (songs, symphonies, musicals, etc.). Under this understanding, what is most valued is the "created art object" (the song) instead of "the action of art" (singing, playing, listening). This has led to a belief that the goal of performing is to honor, uphold, or serve the music (the created art object) instead of the people "musicking" (singer, player, listener). Small turns this idea on its head, stating, "Performance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform." Therefore, as he says, music's "primary meanings" are social. 

With this mindset, the goal of performance shifts away from singing a piece "properly" or "correctly." Instead, we give primacy to how the act of singing a particular song may impact you (the performer) and the people you are singing for. In other words, rather than placing the focus so intensely on the music itself and how perfectly those notes and rhythms are being executed, we can prioritize the communal aspect of the performance. Small writes, "The act of musicking establishes...a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies. They are to be found...between the people who are taking part, in whatever capacity, in the performance." These relationships between all those who are "musicking" become actual (experienced in the moment) and aspirational, as they serve to represent—or serve as a metaphor for—every ideal relationship we hope to have in life: "relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world." 

There is a Swedish proverb that reads, "Those who wish to sing always find a song." Considering the thoughts above, if we have a wish or a desire to sing, it is likely because we have a desire to be in relationship with each other. When that is our wish, the "music" we choose to sing is a secondary concern. Instead, we prioritize the people who are invited "to music" together. 

I'm looking forward to musicking once more with you all during vocal juries and class finals. Thanks for a wonderful semester. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Watch Yourself! (and invite your inner critics along)

Part of theatre education involves learning how to fairly evaluate performances. In order to do this well, we have to pay attention, thoughtfully take in what we are seeing, and then identify what elements are contributing to, or detracting from, the success of the performance. When doing this, you may imagine what you might do differently if you were the director of the scene or if you were speaking the same text or singing the same notes as the person you're observing. 

Analyzing performances in this way doesn't have to be done with any mean-spiritedness or  schadenfreude. When done with a curious mind, it helps develop the crucial evaluation skills we all need as artists. 

Those same skills can be used for self-evaluation, which takes practice and honing in order to be productive. We all know that we can be our own worst critics. But we can turn that around and use the same observation skills to be our own best evaluators. 

One of the most useful ways to self-evaluate is to video record yourself singing and then watch it as if you are an outside observer. If you're not used to doing that (or have never really tried it), it can be uncomfortable at first since we seem to be conditioned to zero in on our flaws. But honest observation involves identifying areas that can be improved and strategizing ways to work on those parts of your performances. It also, importantly, means identifying the aspects of your performance that are going well that you want to keep or build upon. It takes some conscious effort, but these evaluations can be done without judging yourself or beating yourself up over not being perfect.

In the last blog, I shared some thoughts related to avoidance from The Empowered Performer by Sharon L. Stohrer. The book also has a chapter called "Tell Your Inner Critic to Shut the H*ll Up!" in which Stohrer suggests actually inviting your inner critics to sit with you when you view your videos of practice sessions. As she writes, "The Inner Critics and Judges are part of us. They can help us evaluate our rehearsals and performances, giving us useful feedback. The trick is to harness their wisdom, but avoid giving them power." (p.133)

Once we get to performance time, however, those critics no longer get to speak up. Stohrer once again quotes author Brené Brown, who suggests speaking directly to our inner critics before performances, saying, "I see you, I hear you, but I'm going to show up and do this anyway. I've got a seat for you and you're welcome to come, but I'm not interested in your feedback." (p.134)

As we get closer to end-of-the-semester juries and class performances, try video recording some run-throughs of your songs. Then sit down with your inner critics and put your observation skills to work. Just like theatre critics who write reviews, we can rave about the highlights and take note of the areas for improvement. Then, as performance time nears, we can politely but forcefully remind those critics that it's time to shut the hell up. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Embracing the challenge: Dealing with avoidance

Recently, I've been reading The Empowered Performer: The Musician's Companion in Building Confidence & Conquering Performance Anxiety by Sharon L. Stohrer. This is Stohrer's second book on performance anxiety, so she goes into greater depth and provides more extended strategies than she does in her first book

One of the sections that struck me has to do with avoidance. Related to how we practice our music, she says, "When we have tricky runs or difficult shifts or places that feel too high vocally, we tend to avoid them. No wonder then, when we continue to struggle with those problem areas!" (p.82)

Have you ever caught yourself doing that? There is a difficult section in your song, but instead of devising strategies to work it out, you pretend that it's not there and just hope that it will get better on its own. As stated in the last blog, "Hope isn't a strategy." Stohrer instead encourages singers to do what is entirely logical: When you go to practice, find the spots in your music that trouble you the most, and address those spots first. Rather than trying to escape or ignore the difficulty, she encourages us to embrace it. 

As far as why we avoid these spots in our music, it could be due to perfectionism. To help explain this, Stohrer quotes author, professor, and researcher Brené Brown: 

"Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings or shame, judgment, and blame...Somewhere along the way, we adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish, and how well I accomplish it." -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

If we believe, even subconsciously, that we have to do everything perfectly because we are what we accomplish, the difficult spots in our music will serve to expose our imperfections. So, to avoid the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame, we simply avoid those parts in our music that we can’t yet perform perfectly. Makes perfect sense, right? 

Stohrer comes back to Brown’s philosophies to help us move beyond this mindset: 

"As Brown mentions in her book Atlas of the Heart, perfectionism is not about self-improvement, it's about trying to win the approval and acceptance of others. Striving for growth and mastery should be self-focused rather than based on external factors, 'How can I improve?' rather than 'What will everyone think?' It can be extremely difficult, as a performer, not to rely on external validation. After all, the public won't come in droves to see your performance simply because you think it's amazing. However, do you really think anyone will think your performance is amazing if you don't believe it wholeheartedly first? In order for you to believe you will have an amazing performance, you must look inwards to improve; and in order to improve, you must make room for imperfection and mistakes." (Stohrer, p.75-76)

Stohrer closes this section of the book saying, "Accept your faults and remind yourself often that you are on a journey of self-discovery, of growth as a musician, and as an increasingly-empowered performer. This is a process, NOT a destination." (p.76)

Similar ideas were explored in yet another NPR interview I heard recently. Reporter Mary Louise Kelly was speaking to author George Saunders about his new book of short stories titled Liberation Day: Stories. Here’s an excerpt from the interview: 

KELLY: Are there some [stories] that you work on for days or weeks or months and, at the end, you think, well, that was a crazy idea, and I'm not sure it landed, so let's go and set that one aside? 

SAUNDERS: What tends to happen is I just say, ‘Well, I just haven't opened up to it enough yet. I just have to keep trying, keep trying, keep trying.’...You'll hit a certain obstruction in a story, and it seems like often the key to getting past that is admitting that you're there. And you can't say, ‘Oh, I'm a loser. I'm a terrible writer. I'm a bad person.’ You just say, ‘The story is challenging me in a way I can't figure out.’ 

KELLY: I love that. It's such a good way of thinking about all kinds of challenges, isn't it? Whether it's writing or anything else. 

Next time you hit one of those challenging spots in your music, instead of avoiding it, consider the perspectives above. Acknowledge the difficulty and admit that you’re not yet able to perform that spot the way you would like. Acknowledge that it doesn’t make you a bad singer or a bad person. Think about how you might address that challenge. Then get to work. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Still strategizing

As creative types, we can sometimes find inspiration or insight related to the practice of our art in unlikely places. These last couple of weeks, for me, that came from a war correspondent and a college football coach. 

In the first instance, I was listening to a recent interview on NPR with journalist and author Thomas E. Ricks. In the conversation, he was using his experience as a war correspondent to provide analysis of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In his perspective, much of the success of the movement seems to have come from the way movement leaders adhered to certain principles of war. Specifically, he cites how activists were well-disciplined and focused on preparation, and how they followed up each demonstration with detailed analysis of how the campaign went and what they could do better in the next event. In short, as he says, "They were a learning organization." 

He goes on to praise the leaders for their establishment of, and follow-through on, specific strategies. "Strategy is essential," he says. "If you don't have a strategy, you have basically a car without a steering wheel." 

He also felt that the steps they took in working toward their established strategies were informed by their self-identity. Movement leaders had to clearly define who they were as a movement and what overarching mission they were trying to accomplish. "From that," Ricks says, "tactics will flow." 

In fact, Ricks believes that some of the early failures of the movement stemmed from both a lack of planning and from focusing on goals that were too big to have easily identifiable next steps. It was after these mistakes that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was brought into the movement. As Ricks describes, "King sits down and says, 'OK, what are we going to learn from this?' And he stews on it a lot. And the lessons are, let's be more focused in our goals. Let's not try to change everything at once." Ricks believes it was this willingness to be honest with themselves about what they were doing and how they were doing it that allowed them to develop the necessary strategies to find success. 

The second instance of inspiration has much less historical significance. Even so, it allowed me to make a connection to our work as singers. 

I was reading a preview of the Utah/UCLA football game, which took place on October 8th. The lead-up to the game included a fair degree of hype since it involved two nationally ranked Pac-12 conference rivals. Utah was ranked #11 and was favored in the game despite UCLA's surprising 5-0 record and #18 ranking. With UCLA coming in as the underdog, head coach Chip Kelly was discussing his team's approach to the game. "We know if we're going to beat Utah, it's going to be because of our preparation during the week," he said. "Things don't just happen to you; hope isn't a strategy." 

As I have discussed in a previous article (inspired by a blog by voice pedagogue Matthew Edwards), strategies and goals are different from hopes and dreams. Of course, it's perfectly fine (and probably important) to have hopes and dreams. But without smaller, achievable goals along the way—and strategies for how those goals will be achieved—those hopes and dreams can feel so vast and far-off as to be more frustrating on a day-to-day basis than they are rewarding. 

In both of the instances above, we can see how much value is placed on the direction we get from having specific strategies whenever we are working toward a desired end result. How can you bring more strategizing into your practicing this week? Look back at your goals from the start of the semester. If your progress toward any of these goals has stagnated, let's devise some new strategies. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Exploratory Practice: The Games I Play

The first two blogs of the semester have involved reminding ourselves to establish a technical purpose when singing and then focusing on what is working instead of focusing on the problems. 

Unsurprisingly, this tactic isn't just for your vocal technique. It applies just as well to your artistry. The more clearly you identify and commit to a character objective and an emotional intention when you sing, the more clearly those choices will read to your audience. Like we discussed in the first blog, once you have decided on and implemented a strategy, you can then assess that strategy. Was it successful? Could it be improved? Give yourself a few repetitions with the same strategy, then try a different strategy (a new character objective and emotional intention) and see where that leads. 

This is the key to exploratory practice: choose, implement, repeat and refine, choose something different, implement, repeat and refine.

There are two ways you can try this when you are practicing: playing the higher stakes game and playing the opposite game. 

To play the higher stakes game, you have to specifically decide how your characters are feeling and what they are trying to accomplish. Are they annoyed? Angry? Infatuated? Are they trying to dissuade? Chide? Flirt? After singing your song from that perspective, then raise the stakes and take that emotion up a level or two. Instead of being annoyed, try being deeply disturbed. Instead of being angry, play it infuriated. Instead of feeling infatuation, be passionately enamored with the fire of a thousand suns. Instead of dissuading someone from doing something, try actively preventing them from even considering it. Instead of gently chiding someone, try cruelly mocking them. Instead of subtly flirting, try aggressively seducing. This may start to reveal the wide range of emotions and perspectives that exist. 

Next, you can play the opposite game. It's similar to the higher stakes game in that you have to clearly identify what your characters are feeling and what they are trying to accomplish. But, as you might guess, instead of raising the emotional stakes in the same direction, choose the exact opposite. Instead of being inviting, play it as defiant. Instead of searching for love, play it as if a relationship is the last thing you want. Instead of being upset, play it as though you are completely at peace. As actors, this is a fun exercise that can uncover a variety of interpretive choices you may not have considered. Even if these choices are not appropriate for the piece you are working on, they may have applications in some of your other material. Surprisingly, you may also hit upon some choices that could be effective with the piece you are working on, even if they originated as being the opposite of what you were intending. 

Play some games this week with your songs. Raise the stakes, try the opposite, have fun, and see what you discover. 

Now go practice.