Sunday, April 7, 2024

Proud of your boy

I have a confession to make. I have a hard time saying, "I'm proud of you." 

This doesn't stem from some deep emotional baggage (at least, I don't think it does) or from any resentment that I never heard those words enough from my parents, teachers, coaches, or anyone else whose approval I was seeking. I just don't always like to say it because of what it could be construed to mean. 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines "proud" as "feeling pleasure and satisfaction because you or people connected with you have done or gotten something good." When it comes to all of you, my dear students, I absolutely feel tremendous pleasure and satisfaction when you have done or gotten something good. That might be something big, like a contract for a professional gig, or something more everyday, like a small but significant step forward in your technique. It could also be a personal victory, like you had to do something difficult and just went ahead and did it despite your fears (regardless of the outcome). Witnessing those things definitely makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. So that part of the definition holds true. 

As the definition also states, the pleasure and satisfaction of feeling proud comes because of our connection to another person. If you meet an actor for the first time after seeing a show, you might say, "I really enjoyed your performance," but you probably wouldn't say, "I'm really proud of you for giving such a great performance." Without a connection to that person, that phrase seems out of place. When I was discussing this in a masterclass this semester, Julie said that her dentist tells her he is proud of her for doing such a good job flossing—which feels just a little weird. 

Here's where I balk: If my being proud of someone is dependent on a connection with that person, in a teacher-to-student scenario, it can feel like I'm trying to accept some of the credit for your success. "I'm proud of you for giving such a great performance" could read as "This is my accomplishment, too." 

Now, I can fully acknowledge my role as teacher and the influence that exists in any teacher-student relationship. But, as my thoughts on this role continue to evolve, I know that I am not here to mold you, shape you, form you, or in any other way infuse my technique, artistry, or expressive preferences into you. (I hope you all understand that.)

My role is to facilitate your vocal and artistic development, flexibility, and independence. My job is to co-explore ways to allow your skills to serve your expressive ideas. My goal is to help identify your goals and investigate the many paths that may allow you to reach them (even as those goals shift or change). We work on all of that in micro ways in the studio so that you can do it in macro ways in your life outside the studio. If you leave our lessons more capable and more confident in making a variety of choices, then our collaborative studio research has been a success. 

The other part of "I'm proud of you" that troubles me is that there can be a sense that you have to do something for me to be proud of you. If I only say "I'm proud of you" when you accomplish something, that could start to feel like your accomplishments are what make you worthy, valued, or loved. That's conditional love, which, I would argue, isn't really love. I would rather never use the phrase "I'm proud of you" than give any of you the impression that your significance as a person is measured by your accomplishments. That's something I simply cannot and will not risk. 

This is stated particularly well by voice professor, operatic countertenor, and finalist on The Voice, John Holiday. In an interview for Classical Singer by Peter Thoresen, he shares what he tells every student in his studio: 

"You don't have to do anything to gain my love and you don't have to do anything to gain me being proud. I'm already proud of you. Now let's work, because everything else is just going to be building on top of that. And you're not doing it for me. You're doing it for yourself. And you're doing it for your ancestors, and you're doing it for your family—and for you, hopefully." 

Here's one way these ideas have played out in my own life. In 2011, one of my mentors from my doctoral studies, Professor Paul Kiesgen, died of a terminal illness. To help my own grieving process, I wrote a memorial essay that focused on the lessons I learned from him, and Classical Singer published it. Here's an excerpt: 

In the years since I finished school and left campus, I hadn’t stayed in touch with Professor Kiesgen the way I had planned. As a teacher myself, I didn’t want to intrude on his attention and deprive his new students of the opportunity to learn from him as I had. So I would check in on occasion and always enjoy our brief but pleasant exchanges, picking up where we left off. I know that part of me was also waiting to land a big and splashy job or to have some other monumental career opportunity that I could share with him to confirm the confidence he had in my abilities, which always seemed to surpass my own.

Sadly, his passing has reminded me of yet another important lesson...

Music, and musicians, must communicate.

If we’re not communicating, if we’re focused too much on accomplishment, or if we’re too caught up in the minutiae of our own lives to stay in touch with others, we’re missing the point. 

I'm sure Prof. Kiesgen would be proud of what I'm doing with my career. I'm also sure that, way back then, when I was wanting to do something to make him proud, he was already proud of me. 

Seniors, we're about to wrap up the current version of our school-sponsored co-explorations. As you move on from here, if you ever stop to think, "I wonder if Brian is proud of me?" let me answer that for you right now, despite any misgivings I may have just articulated. 

I am proud of what you have done over these four years (starting with a year of online lessons, no less!). 

I am proud of who you were, how you have changed, and who you are becoming. 

I am excited to see where you are headed, whether that remains in theatre or pivots to an entirely different field. 

But mostly, I am just so proud of YOU (and my connection to you allows me to say that). I hope you're proud of you, too. 

Thanks for allowing me to be part of your journey. Do stay in touch.

Much love,


Monday, March 25, 2024

Safe spaces

As I continue to glean insights from Trauma and the Voice: A Guide for Singers, Teachers, and Other Practitioners by Emily Jaworksi Koriath (previously discussed here), I wanted to share some additional thoughts explored in the book regarding how environment impacts learning. 

On college campuses, there has been a lot of talk in recent years about creating "safe spaces." After some criticism that safe spaces can become passive bubbles where everyone is comforted and never challenged, the conversation seems to have shifted toward building "brave spaces." Instead of allowing students to cocoon in safety, a brave space is designed for risk-taking and big leaps, but within an environment where such actions will be supported. 

As Koriath points out, however, safety is a crucial requirement for learning. She writes, "The type of environment we need to strive to create and protect is one of psychological safety." This term, first coined by Harvard organizational and behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson, indicates a setting "where one can show oneself without fear of consequences to their self-image or career, and where the climate is characterized by trust and mutual respect." 

Teachers who work to establish this sort of learning environment (in the classroom or the voice studio) understand that some truths or criticisms are difficult to hear and can inspire negative reactions from students. Therefore, when we share our assessments, we have to do so with compassion and empathy. As Koriath says, "We can't shield students from the truth, but we also can't ignore that some truths are painful and take time to digest." 

In certain teaching models (notably the Master-Apprentice approach), some teachers prioritize handing out blunt truths, regardless of how they may be received. They believe their job is to get right to the issue, sometimes bombarding students with criticisms regardless of how they might impact a student's psyche. There is plenty of research about how ineffective that is as an overall teaching strategy (which I may share in another blog), but it also seems to be, at best, a bit clueless and, at worst, unnecessarily mean. As the saying goes, people who pride themselves on being "brutally honest" are often more interested in the brutality than the honesty.  

Another problem with such an approach is that criticisms can easily morph into abusive behaviors. As Koriath flatly states, "Verbally abusing students with the aim of 'toughening them up' is harmful. Telling students that they will never succeed is harmful." She admits that the performing arts industry can be cruel at times, and that it could be considered negligent not to let students know about the potential difficulties they may face as they move into the professional world. Still, for too long, some teachers have used borderline abusive language with students while hiding behind the excuse that it's "for their own good." 

As I noted, there has been some criticism of safe spaces, brave spaces, or any other efforts designed to change traditional learning environments. Some people (usually legislators or media figures, not actual educators) think those environments coddle students and will end up turning everyone into snowflakes. To this point, Koriath highlights an important element that sometimes gets lost in this discussion: "resilience skills come after safety and stability are established." In other words, if you want students to actually "toughen up," to have greater tenacity, to be able to bounce back from failures, to take criticism without crumbling, that is developed most effectively in an environment where they feel psychologically safe. Once those skills are in place, they can be implemented in less friendly (or even in hostile) environments. 

Given all of this, here are some questions to ask yourself about the environments you create for yourselves and the environments you step into. When you practice your singing, do you do so in a place where you feel psychologically safe? (Not in a place where you feel others may hear you and harshly judge you.) Do your voice lessons feel like psychologically safe spaces? (If not, let's talk about how we can change that.) Do you create performance environments (small audiences of friends, classmates, loved ones) where you can feel psychologically safe before you go into more high-stakes performance settings? What else might you be able to do in order to allow yourself these important opportunities to develop resiliency? 

Also worth considering, are you allowing psychologically safe spaces for others? Do you clear out of the house (or put on headphones) when your roommates needs to practice? Do you encourage your classmates to speak up if their voice lessons don't feel psychologically safe? Are you a psychologically safe audience member for classmates (either in your classes together or in impromptu meetings)? 

Safety first, then resilience. 

Now go practice. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024


I've been catching up on some reading during spring break, going back to the books, magazines, and journals that have been piling up since the start of the school year. I'm also catching up on the online articles I've been saving, which means I've now closed about half of the tabs that have been open on my computer. (Hallelujah!) 

One noteworthy article I came across, written by Maria-Cristina Necula, features an interview with opera singer Latonia Moore and was published in the September/October issue of Classical Singer magazine. Moore brings up several important topics, like how her training in jazz and gospel singing enriched her operatic singing, and how much her knowledge of music theory has benefited her career. But when asked, "How do you keep your voice in such incredible shape?" one of the main things she highlights is rest.

"There have been times when I needed rest, and rest has been forced upon me. For instance, at the beginning of last season I did Il trovatore in Washington, and when I came to the Met to do Aida, I was not well vocally and physically because I did a very bad thing. I did not take a break. I had gone straight from January to December and my voice said, 'No, you won't!' So, I sang one performance of Aida, and it was just so hard—I was already sick and feeling so run down that I withdrew."

Even though management was understanding, and actually encouraged her to take time off, deciding to step away from a production at the Metropolitan Opera was not easy to do. But she knew it was the right call. 

"It was necessary and I'm so glad I did, because now I feel good again and I know to remind myself: Latonia, take breaks when you know you need them. Lesson learned." 

Those of us who work on an academic calendar know that several breaks are built into our schedule. We get fall break, Thanksgiving break, long weekends for Labor Day, MLK Day, and Presidents Day, spring break, and summer break. Because of that, we sometimes push through when we are tired, knowing that the next time off is just around the corner. Outside of academia, however, breaks may not be so conveniently spaced throughout someone's schedule. In those situations, we may need to be proactive about scheduling (and protecting) our periods of rest. 

I have written previously about the importance of sleep for physical and vocal efficiency as well as it being a prerequisite for learning to occur. In both of those blogs, I cite some of the research that has been done in this area. 

I'm sure there is also research that supports the importance of rest for our mental and emotional health. I could look that up so I could quote it in this blog...but I'm on break. 

I hope you enjoyed your time off and that you were able to rest in all the most enjoyable and meaningful ways. The second half of spring semester always feels like a sprint to the finish. Make sure, as you are completing your work, that you are giving yourself time to rest, as well. 

Assuming you've been able to rest this past week, now go practice. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

Trauma and the Voice

I recently read (and am now re-reading) a book called Trauma and the Voice: A Guide for Singers, Teachers, and Other Practitioners by Emily Jaworksi Koriath. One statistic it highlights is that people are more likely to have experienced abuse or neglect than they are to be left-handed. Therefore, most of us are carrying around some degree of trauma. 

Koriath outlines the recent understanding that places traumatic experiences into two broad categories. The first is shock trauma, where we experience events that overwhelm our system's capacity to respond to threat in real time, such as the speed and danger of a car accident, violent attack, or a sudden fall. The second category is developmental trauma, which refers to the long-term effects and psychological issues that result from abuse and/or inadequate care during critical periods of development. 

She also highlights how some writers have begun to differentiate between what they call "Big T Trauma" (life-altering events) and "little t trauma" (instances of cruelty, silencing, bullying, or shaming that leave their imprints on us). Neuroscientist and researcher Dr. Stephen Porges refers to trauma as "a chronic disruption of connectedness." Author and activist Staci Haines calls trauma "an experience, series of experiences, and/or impacts from social conditions that break or betray our inherent need for safety, belonging, and dignity." 

As you can see, there are many forms and degrees of trauma. Koriath presents her own working definition of trauma, paraphrased from Resmaa Menakem, as something that occurs in the body when the nervous system encounters more than it can process in real time. That “more,” she says, could be light, noise, violence, shame, or any number of other things. The in-the-moment response to this overwhelm is generally to shut down or “numb out.” As a self-protective measure, the mind fights to forget trauma. But, Koriath points out, the body remembers. 

Koriath also cites psychologist Peter Levine who indicates that trauma is not in an event itself, but in the nervous system’s response to the event. Each of us has a different threshold for what events are tolerable and which may result in trauma in the system. As Koriath emphasizes, “Even identical twins can live through the exact same circumstance, and one will experience the event as traumatic and the other may not.” 

It is not, therefore, up to outside observers to decide if someone has been “legitimately traumatized,” since we all process events differently. As Koriath states, “If there is stuck energy in the nervous system, it’s real trauma to that person.” Significantly for singers, if this emotional energy is stored in the body, it can inhibit our best singing and storytelling, which comes from free and unrestrained bodies. 

As a voice teacher, it is way beyond my expertise and scope of practice to try to identify trauma, point it out to my students, or attempt to help them work through it. Instead, as Koriath states, “Our responsibility is to be aware of the prevalence of trauma, and to adopt practices that contribute to nervous system care.” 

Luckily, she gives some specifics. For instance, when singers are in performance studies (like a degree program in musical theatre), they are constantly moving in and out of states of “fight, flight, and freeze.” Because bodies react differently to the feelings of overwhelm that come from perceived threats, our individual systems find ways to keep us safe that Koriath calls “innately brilliant and unique.” What we experience in those moments of stage fright or performance anxiety is the natural response of a healthy and adaptive nervous system. You are not wrong, bad, or "not cut out for this business" if you experience any of these normal, healthy anxieties. Koriath believes we should be better about normalizing the body’s response to the heightened state of performance. Once singers learn to recognize this process as not only healthy but necessary, they can choose to cooperate with it for more freedom onstage. 

How has your practice been this week? How can you stay focused in these last weeks before spring break? 

Now go practice.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Sondheim did the work for you.

I wrote a blog back in 2016 about when it's OK to deviate from the score or change the notes of a piece of music. I think it was inspired by hearing someone in the MTP say, only somewhat jokingly, "Opt up or opt out!" 

Unsurprisingly, I don't agree with that philosophy. That being said, although I am generally a "stick to the score" kind of guy, I do think there are times when it's appropriate to sing something that isn't on the page, which I outline in that previous blog. (Read it here if you're curious!) 

My teacher at Indiana University, Dr. Robert Harrison, often reminded his students that the text, pitches, and rhythms in a piece of music represent the innermost thoughts of a composer and poet (or lyricist). Our first duty as performers, he would say, is to accurately reflect those thoughts. If we feel license to change those notes, it's almost like we're saying we know this piece of music, and the thoughts that inspired it, better than the person who thought those thoughts and turned them into a song (Oh the thinks you can think!). To this line of thinking, Dr. Harrison would sometimes say, "Go write your own damn song! Stop recomposing this one!"

One instance when Dr. Harrison and I both agree it may be warranted to change the notes and rhythms of a song is if it is with the primary intention of enhancing the communication of the text. A great example is text that is set to four quarter notes with one syllable per note. If we were to speak a phrase in such a strict rhythm, it would probably sound monotonous. As singers, it's likely that we would make the emphasized syllables in that text a bit louder and the de-emphasized syllables a bit softer. We may also dot the rhythms, giving the emphasized syllables a bit more rhythmic duration and the de-emphasized ones a shorter duration. In this way, we're helping the audience understand the text by putting them into more of a speech-like rhythm. 

This is the opposite of the "Opt up or opt out" philosophy (singing a higher note than what is written), whose primary intention seems to be to show off something that the voice can do rather than enhancing the communication of the text. 

In my mind, there are certain composers whose music needs very few adjustments, primary among them Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown. Unsurprisingly, both of them served as composer AND lyricist in most of the music they have written.  When that's the case, I pay particularly close attention to the way they merge text and musical phrases, assuming that every detail was chosen intentionally. 

I still believe this even though there are some incredibly famous singers who have incredibly well-known recordings of the songs of these incredibly well-recognized composers where they (incredibly) take a lot of liberties with the incredibly well-written notes and rhythms. (Case in point: You folks doing Into the Woods right now, have you compared your part the way you learned it to the original Broadway cast recording?)

How did they get away with such shenanigans? Well, I wasn't there, so I don't know. But, in some ways, trying to reinvent this music makes your job harder as the performer. As David Eggers said in Dem Lab recently, "Sondheim did the work for you." If we just focus on presenting his music the way he has written it, more often than not, the message will probably come across. 

How has your singing been? How have you been negotiating your practicing and vocal progress amidst your show schedule? (I think my entire studio is rehearsing a show right now—or just finished one, or is about to start one.)

Now go practice. 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

O Holy Vibrato

One of the best things about the break between semesters is that it affords us the time to do things we enjoy that we don't always have time for during the school year, like watching movies, hanging out with friends and family, or analyzing the vibrato rate and extent of pop singers. 

OK, maybe I was the only one who did that last one. Let me give you some background. 

At one point during the holidays, I was listening to an all-Christmas music radio station and they played songs performed by Aaron Neville ("O Holy Night") and Josh Groban ("Believe") back to back. If you don't know who Aaron Neville is, this duet he sang with Linda Ronstadt in 1990 was one of the big pop love songs when I was growing up. Although, to hear his unique vibrato, you only need to listen to the first few seconds of his rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria." 

Most of you are probably familiar with Josh Groban, given his stardom in both pop and Broadway spheres. His ever-present, quick vibrato is part of what I believe makes it difficult to categorize where he best fits, genre-wise. 

Regardless, hearing these two singers back to back, I was really struck by how different their vibrato rates are. So, I pulled out the spectrogram (VoceVista Video Pro) to see if I could measure the differences. Those of you who were in "Vocology Day" at Dem Lab (or who just had Voice Pedagogy with me) may remember a bit about VoceVista. As a research tool, it's tremendously useful for voice analysis. But, for my purposes, I kept it pretty simple and just gave it the eyeball test. 

I looked up recordings of both Neville and Groban singing their own versions of "O Holy Night." This first picture is from Neville singing the climactic note on the word "night." 

In the middle of the screen, the wiggly lines show his vibrato. The number of wiggles per second indicates his vibrato rate. How far above and below the pitch each wiggle travels indicates his vibrato extent. In the picture above, we can see that his rate is about 4.5 cycles per second and his extent is not that extensive. 

Earlier in the song, Neville sustained a less climactic note, which looks like this: 

Here, the rate is almost exactly the same as in the other example (about 4.5 cycles per second). But, looking again at the middle of the screen, you can see that the extent (the size of each bump) is much greater. This means that he is singing much further above and below the pitch. 

In Groban's rendition, his climactic note is on the second syllable of the word "Noel," which looks like this: 

His vibrato rate is roughly 5.5 cycles per second, which is an entire cycle faster per second than Neville's. We can also see that his extent seems to be somewhere between Neville's two examples—wider than Neville's climactic note but not as wide as his second example. Groban's extent also seems to be more consistent in this one-second selection than Neville's, especially in the second example where the peaks and valleys had more variability. 

So, what does all of this mean? For starters, it would seem to confirm what my ears had already told me, that these two singers use their vibrato quite differently from each other. But it also zeros in on how they are different. My suspicion was that Neville uses an unusually slow and wide vibrato. Though it is somewhat slow, it is sometimes wide in extent and sometimes quite narrow. My suspicion for Groban was that his vibrato is faster and wider than most other pop singers. We see in these selections that it is faster than Neville's, but in extent it's somewhere between Neville's two examples. 

I think there is a natural follow-up question to all of this analysis: Which vibrato is better? Well, it depends on what we mean by "better," I suppose. Both singers have made major careers singing the way they do. Neville, who is now 82 years old, has four platinum albums and four top-10 hits as an R&B and soul singer. Groban, who is now 42 years old, has four multi-platinum albums in styles that have been classified as everything from easy listening to pop rock to operatic rock (better known as "popera"). He's also played two leading roles on Broadway. Have these two singers been so successful because of their unique uses of vibrato or despite them? It's probably impossible to say. 

One thing we know about musical theatre singing is that a variety of vibrato rates and extents are used, depending on what era or style of musical theatre is being performed. That can range from a wide and fast vibrato to no vibrato at all to a note that starts with no vibrato and then ends with lots of it! What is "better" may depend on the style, the situation, the emotion of what is being expressed, and what works best in the voices of individual singers. 

How has your singing been this week? 

Now go practice.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Tiny victories

Happy New Year! 

New semesters and new calendar years are great opportunities to evaluate our big-picture trajectories and then zero in on the day-to-day routines that will help us get where we want to be. I came across some wisdom on this topic on The Mental Game of Musical Theatre podcast by our friend David Eggers. There is a lot of outstanding advice in this podcast coming from David's interviews with Broadway professionals. I recently listened to the episode with actor, singer, and songwriter Gavin Creel and was struck by the way he describes the importance of seeking small, daily joys—what he call "tiny victories." (The two-part episode with Creel is available here and here.).

Essentially, Creel believes that storing up regular tiny victories gives us balance and perspective that allows us to better handle the aspects of life that do not work in our favor. For him, a tiny victory sometimes comes from trimming his hydrangea bushes, or engaging in conversations with the server ("Emma") at his local deli, or committing to regular meditation sessions. By amassing these sorts of small joys, he feels more grounded when challenges arise related to his work ("like walking into that audition room, or weathering that call, 'I'm sorry, Gavin, it's not going your way'") or when faced with one of life's inescapable, larger disappointments ("those breakups, those losses, those deaths"). As he says,

"Those big, big, big things that seem insurmountable are coming for you, for me, for all of us. If I don't have a practice in place for me to be able to weather those things, you'll get through it, but it makes it makes it a lot harder."

While this is powerful advice for big-picture life events, I think the same philosophy can be applied to small-scale events like vocal practice. When we are practicing difficult material, or working to develop complicated techniques, each practice session has the potential to accumulate "tiny losses" or even (to be a bit dramatic) "tiny tragedies." Does the world stop spinning if you crack on a high note? Of course not, but it doesn't feel good when it happens. As we have discussed previously, incorporating "desirable difficulties" that take focus and effort to overcome is an important part of meaningful practice. As singer and voice teacher Aubrey Adams-McMillan posted recently, "Making mistakes is a sign of effort," and both mistakes and effort are necessary for progress. [Consider revisiting "Failure is the only option"]

So, maybe what our practice sessions need in 2024 are intentional tiny victories in order to offset the inevitable tiny tragedies that are part of effortful practice. Maybe every practice session needs to include time when you sing something you love just because you love it. Maybe in every session you should stop at some point to recognize, "Hey, that's something I couldn't do two years ago!" Maybe when you notice the bad feelings that come along with tiny tragedies, you can say, "I'm feeling frustrated by this because I'm a sensitive person, and being a sensitive person is a big part of what makes me a great artist." 

I would guess that, in some sessions, there may seem to be more tragedies than victories (tiny or otherwise). But, if we follow Creel's advice and look for more tiny victories to recognize, the balance may swing in a more positive direction. 

What are some goals you have for this semester in the voice studio? What are some tangible tiny victories you can bring into your singing? 

Now go practice.