Category Archives: teaching myself

Singers’ Block

We’re all familiar with the term “writers’ block.” An author spends days or weeks staring at a blank page, or putting pen to paper only to read back over her words and scratch them out, or throw them in the garbage where they belong.


Well, I’ve come down with a severe case of singers’ block. For about three weeks now, as I’ve been preparing for the looming audition season, I’ve been unhappy with nearly every sound that comes out of my mouth, sometimes becoming overwhelmed with frustration to the point of tears. My singing has felt forced, pushed, and labored as I attempt to make my voice do what it is supposed to do—what I know it can do. Occasional moments of beauty get cut infuriatingly short as anxiety returns to my mind, and tightness returns to my throat.


How does a young singer overcome this sort of obstruction? I’ve tried returning to simple exercises to reground myself in technical fundamentals. I spent hours practicing until I’m hoarse. I took a day or two off from practicing to clear my head and rest my voice. I spent time studying the masters—listening to my idols, like Birgit Nilsson and Joan Sutherland. I tried singing through simple arias and songs that I know I can sing easily and gracefully. I tried silently imagining my way through difficult vocal passages. And then, when I come back to the audition repertoire I’m preparing, it all goes back to forced, pushed, labored.


Shriek. Scream. Bleat.


But I know what the real problem is. The problem is that I’m so caught up in the desire to be a successful singer. I’m obsessed with being accepted into this program or cast in that role. And I’m so terrified of the alternative: spending the rest of my life among “muggles,” making a living doing a job that I hate, and drowning in envy for the people who get to travel the world performing opera.


These thoughts are so all-consuming that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to just focus on taking a breath and turning that breath into music. I want to be able to just shut off the valve that controls that part of my brain while I’m singing, but the switch is stuck in the “on” position.


And I just don’t know how to unstick it.


How my Body Issues are Negatively Affecting My Singing

Hint:  Not in the Way You Might Expect . . .

Relax and breathe!”

My voice teacher has said these words to me a thousand times.  Sometimes it’s, “Relax and breathe!” and sometimes its “Relax and Breathe!” 

The funny thing about studying something as finely detailed as classical singing is that your teacher can say the same thing over and over again until finally one day you suddenly understand what she means.

“Relax and breathe.  Relax your belly and breathe!”  She said, and with the addition of those two extra words it hit me. 

You see, as a woman, a kind of big woman, a woman whose body tends to store extra weight front and center, a woman who has on at least one occasion been mistaken for pregnant, I have trained myself to “suck it in.”  My default, as I go about my day, is to hold my abdominal muscles in a way that pulls my belly as much as possible in toward my spine so that it appears slimmer.

I never realized that this was holding my singing back.  In the privacy of my teacher’s studio, I allowed myself to consciously relax my “suck it in” muscles and let my gut out.  I inhaled.  I sang the phrase again.  It was stronger, cleaner, and easier.  It was a major revelation.

And I realized, that I’ve got a major hang-up to get over if I want to be able to sing well.  If I’m going to release those muscles in order to take a decent singer’s breath, I’m going to have to learn how to not be ashamed of my pot belly, something I’ve been trying to hide for my entire life.  Even when I’ve been at my thinnest, I still felt like I had a bit of a gut.  But when I let go of it the difference it made in my singing is undeniable.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to feel comfortable enough to “let it all hang out.” I don’t think of myself as a woman who hates  her body.  I’m generally pretty comfortable in my skin, and I have learned how to find clothes that are flattering, and I own more than one pair of Spanx.  I’m rather proud of my breasts, I’ve got great hair and I often get compliments on my complexion.  I’m not model-thin, but I’m not huge either, and I’m healthy.  I’ve just got this one issue.

I think the first step is just to make a habit of releasing when I’m alone in the practice room.  Maybe then, that habit will unconsciously carry over to the concert hall.


One Singer, Two Masters

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple of private master classes, one with a singer who is in the midst of a fairly prestigious international opera career, and another who is retired from one. For the first, I sang In Quelle Trine Morbide, from Manon Lescaut.  It’s probably my best aria right now.  For the latter, I sang Non Mi Dir, an aria that I’ve been struggling with.

It was a wonderful opportunity to get feedack on my singing from some experienced mentors who know the biz.  I’m so grateful to these singers for taking the time to listen to me and two of my fellow students and offer their advice and wisdom. 

Here are some takeaways:

  • I need to work on breath control and support.  I knew this.  Now I know it more.  “You’re not supporting well and it’s causing pitch problems.”
  • Nerves are also a problem.  I also knew this.
  • I should put Non Mi Dir on the back burner, and spend some more time with Dove Sono.
  • I need more coachings.  I should start doing them regularly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it.
  • I have potential to be a proper dramatic soprano, but I need to stick to lyric soprano rep for now.  For the second time in my life I was told that I could sing Turandot one day.  In the meanwhile, I could look at the lighter soprano role from Puccini’s final opera, Liu.
  • “Get a girdle.”
  • I asked whether I ought to look at Mimi. “No one’s going to cast a big girl like you* as Mimi.  You don’t look consumptive.”
  • “You’re tall, good looking, and you’ve got a big voice.”  Thank you.
  • I need to trust my teacher. 

*I’m nearly 6 feet tall and 200 lbs.  Total Amazon.

Commence Molly’s Summer Singing Bootcamp!

No, I’m not launching a new business meant to capitalize on the shame of fat opera singers. Instead, I’m kicking-off a summer of (mostly) self-directed efforts to whip my singing into shape in time for YAP auditions in the fall.

After a weekend of two solo performances, which were mostly a success, and were totally  fun, but they did reveal a few glaring problems that I am not going to be able to get away with if I’m going to be competitive in this biz.  These problems were foretold by my wise and all-seeing voice teacher who has been particularly tough on me of late.  I’m realizing that it’s time to stop getting frustrated with her nit-picking, and start getting to work on eradicating the nits in the first place.

In my last lesson she said something that all-but stopped me in my tracks, “I know that you practice,” she said, “but I worry that you’re practicing the repertoire and not the technique.

In an attempt to defend myself against an accusation that I’m not sure I fully understood the meaning of in the moment, I muttered something about doing both.

But I had her admonishment in mind when I sat down in front of the piano this evening.    I sang every phrase of Ernani Involami thinking, “Would my teacher let me get away with that?  How would she tell me to fix it?”  And then going back and doing just that.

The result was a much more grueling practice session which produced much better singing. I plan on continuing this method, combined with my usual lessons, and as many coachings as I can afford, and I am going to greet September as a polished, confident performer.

Burn, Baby, Burn!

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light.

-Emily Dickinsen

My candle is burning on one end with a mind-numbing day job that requires me to be up and at’em by 6:00 AM on weekdays.  On the other end, my candle is burning hot and fast with singing obligations:  a lucrative short-term church gig (One of these day’s, I’ll touch on what it’s like to be an outspoken atheist who is frequently employed by churches) which requires a midweek rehearsal and eliminates any chance of sleeping in on Sunday; a fairly ambitious concert of opera scenes that I feel woefully unprepared for; a voice studio recital that should be no big deal, but I’m still majorly stressing about because that’s just what I do.  I’m exhausted and until the check comes in from the church, I’m broke.

With all of this on my mind and weighing down my body, and under the toxic influence of Debbie Voigt’s Wagner and Strauss album,* I walked into this week’s voice lesson.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of big, fat music,” I declared to my teacher.

“Like what?”

“Wagner and Strauss and Turandot.”


” . . . and I want to sing it.”

She just laughed.

“Can I sing Es Gibt Ein Reich?”

“You have plenty of time to sing all that stuff later.  You want to be able to sing into your old age, don’t you?”

I accepted defeat while grumbling something about Es Gibt not even being that heavy.  My relationship with my voice teacher (who will no doubt read this, so I want to make it clear, even as I whine, that I love her, she is an excellent teacher, and my singing was awful before I met her.) is kind of like my relationship with my mother (who will also read this, and who I also love):  I often hate what she has to say to me, and she is always right.

I spent most of the lesson thinking about the hating what she has to say to me part, and forgetting the part about her being right.  In an effort to figure out what the heck I’m going to sing in her recital next week, I banged through four or five arias, pushing back against her admonishment to not sing emotionally, but to sing technically and trust that the emotion will come through.  This has been my greatest struggle as a singer:  always thinking that I have to do something to affect my singing, to make it pretty.  What I always find is that when I stop trying so hard and thinking so much and just let my voice do it’s thing, that’s when my singing is at its best.

Letting go.  Submitting.  Resisting the urge to control evrerything.  Is there anything more difficult?

*Say what you will.  I’m Team Debbie for life.

The Album I Can’t Stop Listening To

Ok, as usual, I’m a little late to the party on this one.  I recently discovered that there is more to the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ouvre than the popular Thrift Shop.  I seriously can’t stop listening to their album The Heist.

Now, my knowledge of hip hop (I don’t even know if it’s supposed to be hyphenated or not?) goes just an inch beyond none, so I can’t really speak to the quality of the album or Macklemore’s rapping skills.  What I like about it is the way it paints a picture of the life of the struggling artist that I, as a struggling artist myslef, find wonderfully relatable and encouraging.  Even the very tongue-in-cheek Thrift Shop fits into this theme, as it addresses trying to look hip and edgy and current with very little money to spend.

The album opens with 10 Thousand Hours, an almost religious invocation whose titular hook references the concept popularized by Malcom Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of dilligent practice to master a skill.  Macklemore brags that after years of working toward his dream he finally has the priveledge of doing what he loves for a living, finally getting an “iTunes check,” and “payin’ rent.”

10 Thousand Hours moves right into a relentless, fast-driving anthem about the thrill of performing.  Mackemore’s lightning-fast rapping about letting “the stage lights shine on down,” and “giving it back to the people, spread it across the country,” and then the hook comes in:

“And we go back; this is the moment;
Tonight is the night; we’ll fight till its over.
So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us.”

That song makes me want to dance until I collapse.

There is a track about the strain the pursuit of success as a performer can put on a relationship, a track about refusing to compromise your art for money, a couple very candid tracks about dealing with addiction.

Then there’s Jimmy Levine, a tense, high-energy epic, reminiscent of Eminem’s Lose Yourself.  It tells the story of breaking into the office of a record label in order to demand an audience with the president.  It declares “All I ever dreamt about was makin’ it.  They ain’t givin it, I’m takin’ it.”  It ends with a little twist that I won’t spoil.

I listen to this album and I think, Yes!  I can put in my 10,000 hours, and I can make the sacrifices I need to make in order to achieve the life I want.  Macklemore dreamed of being a rapper.  He and Ryan Lewis independently produced an album that, as of this writing, has sold over 600,000 copies.

I dream of being an opera singer, and making my living on singing.  I dream of traveling from opera house to opera house, portraying heroines like Tosca, Norma, Minnie, Aida, maybe even Isolde or Sieglinde or Brunnhilde.  The Heist makes me feel like I’m just 7,000 or so hours away from that.

My 2012 New Years Resolution: How’d I do? (Hint: Not that great . . .)

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve made it to December 31.  This is the night that, as Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to point out, we humans have chosen arbitrarily to mark the end of another cycle around our sun.  It’s a time that we humans have also chosen arbitrarily to make attempts to better ourselves.

I’ve never successfully kept a New Years resolution for the full year.  One year I lost 30 pounds by my birthday in August, and every last one was back by Christmas.  Then, there was the year I decided to knit a sweater a month.  I don’t think I even completed one.

For 2012, I chose my resolution a little differently:  I decided to set a resolution that I knew I would enjoy keeping.  This time last year, I decided that, while there are so many arts and cultural goings-on here in Washington D.C., and the area surrounding it, and I often read about this exhibition, or that concert, I never go.

Why don’t I ever go to these events that I know I’d enjoy?  Because I spend all my money on opera tickets.

So for 2012, I resolved to “enjoy more art that is not opera.”  And I set the following criteria to define success for myself:

  1. See a ballet
  2. Attend a classical music concert that has no singing
  3. Attend a gallery exhibition
  4. See a play

As of today, December 31, 2012, I’m 2 for 2.  

I did see a play with my friend Millie and her husband.  A Neil Simon comedy set in a 1950’s television writers’ room. 

Then I saw Così Fan Tutte, Nabucco, and Werther presented by the Washington National Opera.  I went to New York and saw an opera live at the Met for the first time.  I saw my friend Michael’s trio of short operas Fallen Angels.  I saw friends star in local productions of Die Fledermaus, Trial by Jury, and The Sorcerer.  I attended a strange, minimalist performance art piece that was billed as an opera, starring certified barihunk Michael Mayes.  I saw probably half a dozen MetHD broadcasts, several radio broadcasts as well.  I even sang in a few operas myself!

Molly and a friend on Opera Night

Molly and a friend dressed for an evening at the opera.

Then, in December, I saw my friend Erica perform as a featured soloist in a choral concert that was held at the National Gallery of Art, which allowed me to (sort of) tic off the third criterion of my resolution.

So, if we take my resolution at purely face value, I suppose you could call it a success.  I did enjoy more art that is not opera.  I also enjoyed (and sometimes found myself unable to enjoy–I’m looking at you beautifully sung, but boring as hell Met Ernani) an enormous amount of opera.

But I still haven’t gotten out to the ballet, even though I am mesmerized by dancers and find their art to be utterly sublime.  Even though every time I see ads for the ballets being produced at the Kennedy Center I think, that looks fantastic!  And I still haven’t been to any orchestral or chamber music concerts even though there is such an abundance of them in this city.

So here’s what I’m going to do:  just carry those two over into 2013.  I’ve already decided that I need to enjoy more music that doesn’t include singers.   Some of that music will have to be enjoyed live and in person.  So here’s the 2013 resolution:

  1. Listen to more non-vocal classical music, and discuss it in the No Voices Allowed listening club.
  2. Attend a live concert of orchestral or chamber music.
  3. Go to the god damned ballet already!  Yeesh!