News, Singing

Heatwave

One of my enduring memories of performing in ‘Oliver!’ last summer was the heat. When I think about my costume for ‘Consider Yourself’ (two layers of 100% pure wool, cheers JC) I think about how the heat from the stage lights made my entire body feel like it was on fire. I remember having to cut eight inches off my poor, fried hair after spending three weeks coating it in flammable hairspray, pinning it to my head and putting a wig and hat on top. By the final performance it was the texture of straw.

I have played a great many orchestral concerts in hot weather, including in Germany and New York at the height of summer. Rosin tends to get too sticky to use and you have to re-tune your instrument far more frequently than usual because everything expands and the strings slip. Since retiring from orchestral performance, my instrument is of course myself, and I’ve been thinking about how to look after it in the summer months.

Drinking plenty of water is obviously the most vital thing to protect your voice from drying out in hot weather. I suffer from seasonal allergies (aka year-round drippy nose fun) which mean that from April to September I take a daily antihistamine, which is a drug notorious for drying our your inner nasal and vocal folds. This means I also get to use Sterimar and a thing called NeilMed saline douche (?!) which was first given to me by a very lovely nurse in New York, because I couldn’t breathe through my nose in my first few weeks at camp.

Today is the hottest day of 2017 so far. Stepping outside into the garden at around 4pm felt like walking into a pizza oven. It’s now 10pm and still 26c/78f. TOO HOT.

News, Personal, Singing

Finding Your Voice

I’ve had three singing lessons so far since I moved to London. During the course of these sessions I have discovered the following:

  1. My posture is dreadful;
  2. My breath control is also dreadful;
  3. I do actually have a top range (after a substantial warm-up I can comfortably hit a high E flat – the Queen of the Night sings an eardrum-piercing high F in comparison).

So, once again, I am going through a sort of identity crisis with regards to my singing ‘category’. I was always a soprano; my former childhood duet partner used to accurately say I sounded like a boy chorister. Then, when I went to university, I was suddenly unable to sing above a top A, and this continued until… well, until last Wednesday. A combination of lower stress levels, a desire to get my money’s worth out of my tuition (unlike at university, sorry I was always hungover Elaine) and a substantial kick up the backside from N. M. have completely transformed my vocal tone and range in the space of three hours. I’m really quite pleased with myself, but I know I still have a long way to go in terms of correcting bad habits (habits which are entirely my fault for being complacent).

On Wednesday night, after my lesson, I went to the Leicester Square Theatre to see one of my all-time vocal heroes Audra McDonald in conversation with Seth Rudetsky. I knew what to expect, because I’ve also been fortunate enough to see Seth ‘in conversation with…’ another singing idol of mine, Mandy Gonzalez, when they both came up to French Woods in 2015. It’s a very informal setup, with anecdotes and biographical musings interspersed with songs. Seth hosts a radio show and is au fait with just about every Broadway performer because he’s a cracking pianist and writer and has been around for yonks.

Seeing Audra singing live was worth every penny of my very reasonably priced ticket. The venue was small enough that even from right at the back of the auditorium one felt as if they were involved in every note and word of her performance. When she sings her voice lights up the entire room and every ounce of emotion is transferred to the audience. It was really quite special and something I’ll remember for years to come.

The anecdote that I took a lot of comfort from was the fact that when she auditioned for Juilliard, Audra applied as a mezzo and was quickly shut down by the admissions tutors – “they thought I was such a mess”, she said, to the appreciative crowd of (mostly) middle-aged men. This happened to me too when I auditioned for music college. I won’t mention which ones, because nobody likes a bitter Betty. The reception I got from the panel at each respective entry audition was not pleasant. I didn’t know what voice type I had; they said the songs I had chosen were too high for me. I hadn’t had intensive training to prepare for my sight-reading exercise; I fumbled my words and began to panic when I couldn’t keep up. They looked at me with raised eyebrows like I had just wandered in off the street.

Audra is now in her forties, and sounds better than ever. If I want the kind of longevity in my singing career Audra has had – if not the awards and movie roles, then at least some professional recognition – I can take comfort in the fact that despite being a record-breaking vocal powerhouse, Audra also had a shaky beginning. She didn’t fit in with the largely white, wealthy Juilliard crowd, and had to work extra hard to prove herself. After graduation, she excelled as Bess in ‘Porgy & Bess’ and Sarah in ‘Ragtime’, winning Tony after Tony and breaking records and shattering glass ceilings for women of colour. I’m fairly vocal about being state school educated and tangibly ‘other’ (read: Manx), and try not to link this too heavily to my lack of understanding about how the higher education system in the UK works. You can only blame so much on naivety.

I’m unlikely to audition for music college again any time soon, not least because I enjoy my job in PR and have zero desire to get into even more student debt, particularly as for the next three years I’m still ‘international’. For now, I’ll keep going to my singing lessons and feeling good that at the age of twenty six I can still improve myself – despite what society would have everyone think, I’m not actually ‘past it’ just yet.

PS. Before anyone starts kicking off to the Guild committee and trying to take my mezzo-medals off me, kindly get a grip, and also remember that voices change, particularly through periods of excessive drinking and partying like my early twenties.

Personal, Singing

Once More With Feeling

Since beginning singing lessons again in the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about emotion. Specifically, how to convey emotion through song when performing, even if you can’t draw on that feeling from your own personal experience.

I’m the first to admit that my understanding of the ‘L’ word is limited. I’m 99% sure I was in love once, when I was about 21, but I felt very strongly that my feelings were unrequited and so I never mentioned it to anyone. It took me by surprise, and quite honestly I had a dissertation to write. I’ve been carrying that awareness around with me for the last six years, and it’s come in useful as my voice developed and I sang stock mezzo songs from the likes of Cherubino and Eponine. On my own, pretending he’s beside me… all alone… *indistinct weeping*

I’ve been learning ‘Your Daddy’s Son’ from the musical ‘Ragtime’, a song performed by Sarah, a young African American woman living in New York around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a beautifully written song full of emotion, despair and loss. Audra McDonald won a Tony award after originating the role on Broadway in the nineties, her voice continuing to be one of the best and most-lauded in the theatre world. I’m not going to pretend it’s okay for me to take ownership of a song like this, but as a standalone piece, it’s a great one to learn in order to think about the placement of emotion in song, and how to push the voice to almost ugliness at the song’s climax. In my recording, there are a few blips that I would normally record over, considering them flaws, but in a live performance of a song like this one, those cracks and croaks are almost a positive embellishment.

I now have to count on two hands the number of times some trash guy in their twenties has made me feel like crap in order to make themselves feel like the bigger person. As the late Carrie Fisher said, “take your broken heart and turn it into art” – but at what point does all that pent-up rage and disappointment start impeding your ability to perform? When do the negatives connected to your own emotional experiences start to outweigh the positives?

Maybe they don’t. Maybe Carrie is right, as a performer you just need to keep topping up your ‘feelings bank’ and burn them like fuel whenever the role requires it. I can’t imagine losing a child, like Sarah in ‘Ragtime’, but I have felt grief. Perhaps this is enough.

Truthfully, I am a very traditional gal. I grew up with the idea that there is one ideal person for everyone, both in the domestic and figurative sense (Disney Renaissance, hello). The older I get, the less I think that this is the case for my generation, which sucks because we all watched those princess movies. Acknowledging that I might not meet someone who accepts me for who I am has been tough, but made significantly easier by the fact I have performing and writing to keep my creative neurones whizzing around my brain. In a strange way,  it’s quite freeing; not dating is going to save me a heck of a lot of time and money that I can otherwise spend on stuff that I know makes me happy. What I’m really looking for is the Bobby Willis to my Cilla Black. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to find my Bobby one day.

Singing

A Tale of Two Shows

ITH

This is a story about my first trip to New York in 2010, and it involves two Broadway shows.

I don’t even really remember why I was going to New York in the dead of winter, other than that I had worked through the summer and hadn’t had a ‘proper holiday’ in 18 months, and my friend Ben from high school was out there learning how to act and developing an American accent that, in hindsight, was pretty cool if you’re all nerdy teenagers from the Isle of Man.

Ben had a pal called Luke, who from memory was extremely tall and wore a lot of fur. He was fabulous and I liked him immediately. Luke had two tickets to a Broadway show and Ben was called into work last-minute, and so I was offered the spare.

We met outside the Richard Rogers  theatre.

‘So what is this about, again?’

‘It’s this hip-hop musical about Latinx people who live in Washington Heights, and it’s won a bunch of Tony awards because everyone thinks it’s amazing. It is amazing.’

I thought about how I really wanted to go and see something I already knew the songs to, something like Wicked. But hey, the ticket was free, so I was game.

I sat down in my seat, thinking the stage and seating layout was a bit weird and not like the Frank Matcham-style theatres I was used to back in the UK. The stage went dark and I heard birdsong and a simple clave rhythm.

Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day
I wake up and I got this little punk I gotta chase away
Pop the grate at the crack of dawn, sing
While I wipe down the awning
Hey y’all, good morning.

THE SONGS! THE WORDS! THE RHYTHMS! THE SINGING! ALL THE THINGS! You know when you have a musical experience and you walk out a changed human? That’s what In the Heights did to me on that freezing December night in Manhattan. I still remember snorting with laughter at learning the origins of the title character’s name:

[Abuela]
Remember the story of your name…
It was engraved on a passing ship on the day your family came
Your father said “Usnavi,
That’s what we’ll name the baby.”

[USNAVI]
It really said “U.S. Navy,” but hey…
I worked with what they gave me okay…

People who are clever with words are my favourite artists. I loved studying Shakespeare at school and I can always be charmed by a guy with a decent grasp on the English language. The language in this musical was game-changingly good. I knew this was going to be the start of something, but at age 20 couldn’t really articulate what.

Weirdly, and unknown to me at the time, the second show I saw (thanks to the lottery ticketing system – woo!) was a reworking of West Side Story with a Spanglish twist. The magic of Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins was updated by none other than Usnavi himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Everyone knows him now as the guy with the amazing wedding video and ‘The Hamilton Dude’, but back in 2010 I was a young music student and totally overwhelmed by the transformative experience of seeing his new work in more than one place on Broadway. It wasn’t the same old tourist-pleasing crap, it was refreshing and exciting. You already knew the story and the music, but the words were better. You had to check yourself sometimes in order to keep up. You had to really pay attention.

We now know that Hamilton is the most tourist-pleasing show of the history of the world (if anyone has a ticket for later this year they don’t want that is under £200, can I have it please? Asking for real. Not a joke). If it’s anything like In the Heights was, let me say that I get it. I get it.

In the last 48 hours I’ve listened to the Hamilton soundtrack three times in its entirety and started learning a couple of the Eliza Schuyler songs. I’ve watched all of the clips on YouTube and I’ve dreamt about being in it (literally had a dream about it because of all the listening). I admit to initially being a bit cynical about how it might fare on a British stage, given that we don’t learn American history as part of our school curriculum. But now I’m in London, I forget that everyone is London is from somewhere other than London. It’s a city of immigrants, a lot like New York. I’m one of them now.