Literacy and then some

I have recently given myself permission to read for pleasure again. This has been a long time coming. I have been elbow-deep in so many creative projects, with even more pressing things on my to-do list related to home maintenance, family obligations, and mundane tasks, that I had begun to view books as “time luxuries” I could not afford. On the contrary, it has been reiterated to me by multiple trusted sources that if I am to remain intellectually sharp and artistically inspired, I must not neglect the important personal growth that devotion to reading great authors’ works affords.

That said, in the past thirty days I have gleaned inspiration from books by Twyla Tharp, Sarah Ban Breathnach, Diane Ackerman, Sarah Palin, Eugenia Price and Edith Wharton, among others. Turning toward women whose ideas and/or language mastery enrich my experience has proven to bring a sense of well-being and balance back into a formerly crowded and stressed existence. These women have aptly reminded me that life’s beauty, simplicity and opportunities for growth are mine today, but only if I claim and cherish them. I also am choosing more and more how my time will be spent rather than defaulting to the work that piles up around me. Several years ago I gave up television entirely–I proudly state that I have not owned a TV since 2011 (the only time I miss having a TV is during the Olympics!) Freedom from the tyranny of TV has loosed so much time that I now spend practicing, writing, composing, or sharing quality time with my husband. The act of choosing to create something, or to finish something I have started, provides more of the sense of accomplishment and productivity I continually seek.

But I don’t stop there. In addition to carving out time to read, I have proactively purchased Grammy-nominated albums that I found appealing and inspiring during the 2018 Grammy deliberation process. I have enjoyed listening to those for artistic reasons as well as for pure entertainment. Also, last summer I purchased a book of photographs at Brookgreen Gardens, which showcased the beautiful sculptures, landscapes and etched poems posted throughout that gorgeous property near Myrtle Beach, SC, and so I have been enjoying a refresher of last summer’s vacation. My awareness about things that interest me has piqued: a book of Scottish poetry, a hyacinth in a flower shop, a set of hand-drawn note cards and I have realized that the part of me that loves life is nurtured when I allow myself these simple indulgences. For too many years I deprived myself of everything that I could conceivably live without, but now I am finding joy in allowing that once-deprived girl to experience the gift of procuring something that sets her heart aflutter.

To my compatriots in this boat: may you discover the blessing of granting yourself simple pleasures–like reading classic literature (which increases your vocabulary, contentment, and general knowledge), taking creative excursions to museums, botanical gardens, and beaches, purchasing and listening to music by artists you admire and would like to support, and engaging in more self-nurturing activities. We live in a world that pulls us in a million distracting directions, and we are drawn into trances by technology that will not let us go. Imagine how creative and productive we all would be if more of our time were spent writing that book, practicing that aria, beginning that project, or finishing that long-awaited goal? You can do it. So can I. Success and triumph await.


The Importance of Cultivating Taste

In completing my responsibilities as a voting NARAS member (the Recording Academy), I was recently dismayed to discover a downturn in the moral content (and in some respects, musical quality) among the top five contenders for this year’s Record of the Year category. Without mentioning any names, all five songs being considered for the prized Grammy award contain lyrics that are highly objectionable, to say the least, and not only to those with traditional, conservative values. Any parent or teacher conscientious about protecting their children/students from filling their ears and minds with downright destructive, obscene, inappropriate-for-any-age messages should be concerned about this trend. So I endeavor now to urge not only those that have the honor (I’m beginning to wonder about that, too… it’s a responsibility, to be sure) of deliberating over Grammy awards, but everyone in the listening public, to ramp up their standards of quality, and not to simply tolerate listening to less-than-excellent music any longer.

Before I get too many objections related to this post, please hear me out. I do not mean to impose my own standards on anyone. On the contrary–what I am asking is that you challenge the music you find yourself listening to and ask yourself a few questions: Do the lyrics of this song mesh with my moral and ethical principles? Does the music itself meet my standards for artistic quality (whatever those standards may be)? Is this the best music I can find to saturate my mind, or could I find something of better quality than this? Are there ways this music raises my artistic ears to new heights, or inspires me in a positive way, or improves my mood, or makes me a better person? Do the music’s lyrics and overall theme resonate with that which is important to me, or do they contradict it? Do the artists/songwriters succeed in adding beauty or value to the world in some way by putting this song into our world and consciousness? These are worthy questions in a world 1) that seems to value destruction more and more, and 2) that is moving away from optimism, unity and tolerance among cultures and races. We as the listening public have the power to reward the finest examples of music in each category (and to shape the future of music) by simply being decisive about what we will and won’t listen to. That which is worthwhile art is well worth the effort, my friends! We can transform the quality of music that is lifted up for our children (and world) to hear by purchasing, playing, and supporting live performances of music that represents only the best we can access. There are several ways to proactively become involved in this effort: Attend local concerts by children and youth and show your support of school music programs. Give alternate styles a chance and purchase tickets to local symphony, jazz, classical, and quality pop, bluegrass, and country performances in your community. Make the effort to learn about art and culture, and work to support and cherish it. Children emulate those they respect, so your efforts to clean up your listening environment won’t fall on deaf ears.

In light of the recent Grammy deliberation process, I have decided to no longer allow any music I feel doesn’t represent something valuable (worth sharing) to flow into my ears. I can and have set boundaries. While I am still committed to being aware of prevailing trends and to the quality level of songs achieving award status, I refuse to condone the wave of mediocrity, baseness, and less-than-deserving music which has crept onto the popular consumer’s plate. I will not acclimate and I will not lower my standards while I have music in me (and while other composers/artists have worthy music in them) which strives to elevate the human condition, and works to improve the world around those who listen. We can all make the decision to live on a higher cultural plane, as there are millions of choices today regarding what we allow into our ears, and into our brains… these stimuli eventually find their way back out to the world through our mouths and actions, as it has been shown that our lives and words reflect what we allow into our minds. Our responsibility as listeners has never been greater: to be discriminating about what we allow into our ears, and to not underestimate the influence our choices of music have upon our behaviors and belief systems. The responsibility of artists continues to be, and has always been, to enhance the lives of those we serve, and to improve the world around us, influencing society for good. Grammy-contender recording artists and songwriters, those who listen to our art deserve better.


Working Through Illness

From time to time, everyone must pass through seasons of forced rest and recovery. Often through no fault of our own, we find ourselves exposed to germs at a time when the immune system we rely on is depressed for one reason or another. One mentor of mine phrased it thus: “Sometimes there’s just a bug with your name on it.” It’s important for singers to remember that these times require careful attention to one’s instrument. Vocal rest, when there is pain in the throat or larynx, is an absolute necessity. However, much work can still be accomplished during this time-out from singing.

Score study, which too many singers ignore, to their detriment, can still be undertaken while in the sick bed. In fact, this mental practice is every bit as necessary as the physical kind whenever one is preparing music for performance. Too often we picture “practicing” as something we do in the same manner every day, when it needs to be an organic process that ebbs and flows with our voice’s preferences, moods and hormonal fluctuations day-to-day. Studying the historical context of one’s repertoire is another important step which is often overlooked in favor of literal singing practice. Researching one’s music will always provide greater context and depth to the work, and it can easily be done when singing feels less than therapeutic. Cleaning up one’s diction and clarifying translations of songs in various languages should not be neglected at times when the voice needs rest. Studying musicological discourse on one’s repertoire is another wonderful way to put the daily practice time to good use. When a singer must rest the voice, I recommend trying to honor one’s usual practice time with equivalent time spent doing non-singing practice, research, score study or diction/translation work (when one’s health permits it). Undergraduate voice majors would go a long way in their professional preparation to remember this type of commitment to their craft.

More times than I could count did my undergraduate voice students try to justify an entire week (or more) of no progress made in their song preparation because of sore throats or other illnesses. I reiterated over and over again that those times are GOLDEN for accomplishing this non-singing work that is vital to every successful performance. It may even seem convenient (when looked at in an optimistic light) that one’s voice needs rest so that one can jump into this type of intellectual work that always makes a song’s performance more authentic and well-prepared, because when we possess good health, that work generally gets overlooked in favor of singing through the repertoire for the one hundredth time. Smart practice, my dears, ensures that a work never gets dull, but grows ever more dear to one’s heart through further exploration, experimentation, research and ownership conferred to the one endeavoring to study it. Singers, let us encourage one another to pursue this necessary work when our voices could use a day off.


The U.S. Army Voices

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of spending a week this month with some of the finest musicians and classiest people I have ever met–the distinguished members of the U.S. Army Voices. This ensemble is a highly select vocal ensemble within the elite Army Band known as Pershing’s Own. They are the bearers of the singing burden for official government ceremonies in Washington, D.C. including appearances at the Pentagon, White House, Capitol Building, monuments, and Arlington National Cemetery. They also get flown to many different places to sing the national anthem (like the Super Bowl and professional ball games) as well as on international performance tours. The auditions to become accepted into this amazing group are rigorous and competitive, yielding a crop of professional voices that can and do sing everything extraordinarily well. The impressive multitude of styles these individuals sing (not just well, but at amazingly professional levels) includes classical music, symphonic concert solos, musical theatre, jazz, rock, and endless renditions of every American patriotic standard known. My appreciation and respect for these heroes know no bounds.

During my workshop, we dove into working on vocal jazz repertoire, from solo pieces with a jazz piano accompaniment to 8-part ensemble arrangements replete with scat choruses and harmonic splits formidable enough to make professional jazz vocalists shy away from attempts at public performance. Not these brave men and women! Although only a few of them had any real jazz experience, they all (yes, ALL!) willingly laid down their inhibitions and embraced my workshop in improvisation and Dalcroze Eurythmics (the expression of music through kinesthetic movement) and enjoyed learning together. They supportively offered feedback to one another about improvements made during the course of our work (accepting criticism from other professionals is not known to be the pro singer’s strong suit…) Kudos to these humble, excellent performers for being willing to learn from and with one another! Not only did they make amazing progress during the course of our three hour workshop, but they also carried that new-found expertise into our performance the next day (click for video). I couldn’t have been prouder of them all!

During the week it was brought to my attention by an Army singer being honored at the time of his retirement that many international diplomats have commented to him over the years about the extremely valuable work the Army Bands and Army Choruses (and all the musicians in our American armed forces) do. When, for instance, foreign diplomats meet with our government representatives and the meetings do not go well, sometimes the last impression is made by these national musicians who paint a better picture of America–singing and playing songs from the native lands of those diplomats… the song in French, Japanese, German or Korean, may do a whole lot more to smooth America’s relations with those countries’ leaders than our government leaders and representatives often do. Our Army musicians are national heroes–they keep the peace, put a professional, respectful and patriotic face upon everything they do, and are so often the most successful representatives of our country (and of our citizens’ good will) than anyone else in the negotiating process. This reality should be reported in the news, for our future is much brighter in this day and age knowing that our Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine musicians are working around the clock to help our relations with every country in the world. For this we all ought to be tremendously grateful. They are heroes deserving of our praise, support, attention (they are so musically gifted, I wish everyone in the world could hear them perform!) and most of all, our loyalty. They provide necessary relief, honor and support for our soldiers serving on the front lines all over the world, and they themselves have made sacrifices that will never come to light. They have done it willingly because they love our country. Long live the U.S. Army Bands!

I would suggest to every outstanding young vocalist or instrumentalist right out of college, looking for a full-time singing or playing job, to pause long enough to take a good look at the opportunity that a career in the U.S. Army Band would offer. Folks, this organization is definitely worth considering in a world where recorded music is worth just about nothing anymore (because the internet has rendered it free for the stealing), and everyone knows that to perform music for a living means that you need to have another job to pay the bills. Not so for the U.S. Army Voices and Army Band personnel… their full-time salaries, benefits and retirement packages are quite attractive considering the slim pickins’ of alternatives for new music grads. If you’re interested in learning more, I have some friends I can put you in touch with! 😉 Long live the U.S. Army Band and the U.S. Army Voices, and thank you for all your immeasurably valuable service!


For the latest news and updates, subscribe below: