Magnificent Monteverdi

As much as I love singing the music of Antonio Vivaldi and Francesco Cavalli, I must admit that Claudio Monteverdi’s glorious vocal writing is like a healing balm to my soul! I’m currently practicing a set of early Italian arias for an upcoming vocal recital at Valparaiso University in July. The program will also feature my 2017 Lutheran Summer Music vocal faculty colleagues, Penny Hogan, George Hogan and Michael Scarbrough.

The roots of my adoration for Monteverdi's music stem back to my college years at the University of California-Santa Barbara where I was a member of the vocal ensemble, Musica Antiqua, conducted by our wonderful, resident early music scholar and music history professor, Alejandro Planchart.

When our ensemble met for the first rehearsal of the semester that year, Dr. Planchart distributed thick, full scores to each of us. The scores contained the work we were slated to perform at the end of of the Spring term, (my last semester at UCSB); Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (1610 Vespers). Talk about graduating on a high note!

The members of our ensemble did not sing in rehearsal that day. With scores in hand, we listened to the entire work and many us were in awe I might add. My jaw dropped upon hearing the opening movement of piece which featured brilliant brass and singing string instruments. With all the beautiful antiphonal choral movements, duets, trios, solo singing, florid and ornamented continuo, and instrumental ritornelli that further unfolded throughout the work, I found myself with tears in my eyes after my initial hearing.

Both the rehearsal process and ultimate performance of our rendition of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers were often intense and inspiring that semester, requiring much concentration throughout. This work features an abundance of virtuosic vocal writing, especially the solos. (which were entirely performed by UCSB students for our performance that year). The process of studying, rehearsing and performing this technically-challenging music stretched my colleagues and me in extraordinary ways. I was left with a joyful and rewarding sense of accomplishment, creating an indelible imprint in my memory to this day.

Is has been further thrilling to have had subsequent professional opportunities to perform this extraordinary masterpiece following my initial introduction to Monteverdi's music as a student. One such occasion was with Helmut Rilling at the Oregon Bach Festival. Maestro Rilling made an interesting observation about the piece and it's composer at the time. He suggested that while Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers was essentially a sacred work, with traditional and poetic Latin texts throughout, the music must also be performed passionately. Monteverdi was Italian after all, and from a culture known to live and express all aspects of their lives with great passion.

What I remember about the Oregon performance was the sense of oneness that prevailed between all the musicians and with the audience. Singing with that particular Soprano section felt like one amplified voice, with seemingly one breath and one heartbeat; a transcending experience as I recall.  I've been privileged to sing with some of the best vocal ensembles in the country, but this performance stands out as one of the high points of my professional choral career. The audience immediately leapt to their feet with a standing ovation at the end of the concert, no exaggeration. Sometimes the practice of standing ovation seems overused at times, but in this case, it was unabashedly warranted given the extraordinary musical rarity of what had just occurred.

If you ever want to see and hear a spectacular performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers presented in the historically significant, Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica) in Venice, where the work was first premiered, check out the John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists DVD filmed in the late 1980s. It's a truly breathtakingly beautiful performance and makes use of all the various balconies and nooks and crannies of the beautiful Basilica space. If one of the baritone soloists looks familiar, it is indeed a very young, future opera celebrity, Bryn Terfel!

As much as I adore his larger works, I find the spontaneous and dramatic interaction within Monteverdi’s madrigal writing to be rewarding as well. I’ll admit that I am really a chamber musician at heart. To my delight, I’ve discovered a wide breadth of Monteverdi's sacred and secular vocal chamber music while perusing through the complete works section at various university arts libraries. It has been fun to program several of these gems in recitals in recent years. I also love Monteverdi’s opera writing, which, at that particular point in history, was dominated by recitative with an intense capability of immediate story telling.

What I’m practicing now is an aria from Monteverdi's Scherzi Musicali, a collection of arias, duets and trios with texts focusing on love’s desire, unrequited passion and return of affection. The aria I’m preparing includes three verses of recitative and includes an ostinato bass line and chord progression.  I truly adore ostinato lines in this style of writing, along with theme and variations, melodic sequence, harmonic suspensions and of course, interactive ornamentation.

Finally, for me, Monteverdi's music continues to stand the test of time. There is always something new to notice, find relevance in and rejoice with in experiencing his magnificent writing.

Back to Bach!

Back to Bach


As this most recent deluge of severe storms, ancient trees falling down, failed bridges and flooding reservoirs we’ve experienced here on the Central Coast passes and makes way for sunnier days in our neck of the woods, the sense of renewal this Spring inspires in me seems especially significant this year and is perhaps even symbolic in nature.


At the moment, I’m returning to my beloved and well-used Bach B-Minor score in anticipation of the upcoming performance of the piece I’ll be singing with the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale, conducted by Anna Hamre, at the end of April.

(see calendar page on this website)


My former voice teacher from my Cal Arts years, life mentor, and highly esteemed colleague, Maurita Phillips-Thornburgh, aka: “Bunny”, once described Bach’s music as something you can only sing with excellent technique, otherwise it all just falls apart. Bunny also taught me the magical approach of singing long, melismatic passages while thinking of the off-beat, almost like jazz. The net result of this particular rhythmic emphasis yields long runs that hum along, seldom rush and never sound mechanical.


In many respects, as I reflect on our recent move across the country, I realize that singing Bach again also feels like coming home, literally, spiritually and figuratively.


In the process of revisiting this extraordinary masterpiece, I am additionally reminded of how performing and studying Bach’s music inspires in me a timeless sense of awareness; when musical form seamlessly meets substance-inspired by the text. It doesn't matter how many times I hear or perform this particular musical gem, there is always something new to glean from it.


Lastly, perhaps the most exciting thing about the upcoming Fresno performance of Bach’s B-Minor is that I’ll be performing with my daughter, Sarah, who will be taking a break from her performances with the New York Metropolitan Opera to perform this particular concert.

I’ll be singing the Sop I solos to her Sop II/Alto. How fun and rare is that?


Until my next post...CML


After nearly twenty two years in Minnesota, my husband and I have recently moved back to our native state of California for this next chapter in our lives. These few weeks following my month-long stint teaching and performing again with Lutheran Summer Music in Decorah, IA in July, have found me re-grouping, unpacking and organizing our new space in earnest as I prepare to establish new teaching situations and explore some performing opportunities in the area as well. I’ve already been in conversation with one prominent voice teacher in San Luis Obispo who is looking to expand her studio teacher roster. We seem to have similar teaching philosophies and I believe this new business relationship will prove to be a wonderful fit for us both.

Another exciting development which unfolded this past Spring was being approached by the San Francisco-based Savvy Company about joining their international private teacher roster. This innovative teaching platform incorporates the internet with online voice lessons. Similar to the Skype technology, Savvy coordinates voice instruction between teachers and students within a high fidelity video camera and digital audio environment. I am enthusiastic to explore the possibilities of this business model and much encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard so far. Both the video and audio capabilities are superior to what I have previously experienced when using Skype. An update of this new development and more information will follow soon.

In the meantime, I need to get our piano tuned, unpack my music and find some students!

A Truly Inspiring Mentor

Last Sunday I had the life-altering experience of attending a befitting memorial service and celebration of the life of Thelma Hunter, an incredible woman, with a zeal for living that few could match. My husband and I left her memorial service with a renewed sense of “Carpe Diem” in the wake of hearing about her well-lived and never wasted life.

Thelma was not only a talented pianist and collaborator, devoted wife and mother, tireless supporter of the Arts, and encouraging force to other musicians, she also had the knack of making whomever she was talking to feel their personal contribution to the artistic community was important, respected and viable. I admired her sense of personal style, independence, philosophical life wisdom and never-wavering intellectual curiosity.  

We have performed chamber music together which was pure joy both in the rehearsal process and during performance. Thelma has also played Chopin on our family’s Steinway C and I will cherish her DNA on the ivory keys for years to come.

I will also treasure Thelma’s hand-written note she sent to me the week after I performed Poulenc’s Gloria last May. She reiterated what she said after the performance: about that particular piece being made for a voice like mine and how clear my diction was. She always liked to complement me on my diction and I always loved hearing that feedback!

One of the speakers at her memorial service described Thelma as someone having died young at an advanced age. What a wonderful goal to strive for! I’ll miss Thelma Hunter very much. She will always be with me, both with my memories of her playing and remembering her joie de vivre attitude. The music continues on.  



Experiment vs. Masterpiece

One of my current favorite blog subscriptions is with "". The author is a "sewist" like me and is currently engaged in a RTW (ready to wear) fast, vowing to make all her own clothes for one year. I believe she's now in her forth year of this ongoing quest and it's admirable to be sure.

The reason this reference is showing up on my professional singing/teaching website is that once again, my sewing has intersected with my singing. 

One of the subscribers to goodbyevalentino's blog shared the following point of view; treat every sewing project as an experiment not a masterpiece in the making, thus avoiding the perfectionist pressure that plagues many creative artists. The net results of our efforts may indeed become masterpieces but the process of creating them may prove much more enjoyable and liberating with this less pressure-packed philosophy.

It occurred to me that such an approach can be applied to performance and practice as well; not dumbing-down one's efforts and expectations, but rather, having specific goals, plans and standards of excellence for that particular point in time and place and seeing how it all works out. An exciting prospect when you think about it.


Home Concerts

It's been a busy Fall so I haven't posted in a while. One of the things I was doing these last few months was preparing a home concert for a Twin Cities multi-generation ladies group comprised of musicians, both active and retired. We meet once a month, present an hour-long musical program and enjoy a wonderful meal together. I always emerge from these gatherings inspired, refreshed and renewed, musically and personally. On the surface, this may sound primarily like a "social" group, with all the stereotypical status-seeking, competitive trappings but while our group is indeed social, I have never felt those other aforementioned vibes with these particular women. Instead, the atmosphere is educational, illuminating and healing on many levels. Our performers talk about the music, poetry, historical context, performance practice and inspiration for the compositions. 

It is a bit intimidating, but also very rewarding to perform for such an experienced and educated audience. For my part last Friday, collaborative pianist and friend, Jill Schendel and I presented a group of six songs creating a seasonal journey spanning from late June (June Twilight by Rebecca Clarke, October Wind in New York  by Emma Lou Diemer, Carol of the Snow and Behind the Clouds by Abbie Betinis, Wonder by Gerald Finzi and Come, Sing and Dance by Herbert Howells) through Christmas Day. We performed in Shirley and Michael Santoro's beautiful music room with its gorgeous picture windows, stunning views of the surrounding wetlands and the rich tones ringing out from their exceptionally sonorous Steinway grand piano.

In addition to the multiple magical musical moments experienced at the Santoro's lovely home, many of my most favorite home concert memories have been shared at Fred and Gloria Sewel's spectacular home in Minneapolis. (The Sewell and Santoro families are faithful supporters of the arts in the greater Twin Cities area of Minnesota) 

The contemporary design of the Sewell house was featured in Minnesota Architect magazine (May-June 2002) and features a rectangular-shaped living/music room which was conceptualized and designed to be acoustically suited for chamber music. The Sewell's wonderful Steinway grand piano sits proudly in an beautiful environment of hard wood floors, colorful custom rugs with music symbols and composer names woven in, stunning art and sculpture all around and picture windows facing a lake. When I've been lucky enough to perform  there, not only has each experience been richly rewarding from a musical standpoint, but it has seemed as though time has been suspended somehow; as if the music being played and sung has tapped into a centuries-old continuum. Similar to the Santoro's home, there is the opportunity for special moments between audience and performer, a human connection, where beauty and emotion meet aesthetic and the senses.  

Communication and emotion in home concerts is strikingly close and refreshingly human. I hope the practice and promotion of home concerts continues to be nurtured and valued well into the future. Our present-day electronically-enhanced illusion of perfection needs a human balance that live performances and home concerts continue to provide. 


Being present in the process

Our current instant-gratification society seems to be so end-product driven lately that the overall enjoyment and value of process seems to fall by the wayside. This high-speed, technology-driven phenomenon and resulting stress is especially on point in the area of practice and performance for musicians. I will venture further to say that our perceptions of success and frustration in not achieving the illusion of perfection are effected by this recent prevailing impatience as well.

When a musician practices effectively, I believe they take time to attend to the details. In the case of singers, we need to explore the text away from the music. We need to refine aspects of whatever language we're singing, vowel clarity, consonants etc.. especially if its in our native tongue because of the inherent challenges between spoken and sung articulation and the sustaining of the same. We then need to learn the notes and rhythm separate from the text. the tone quality, shaping off the phrases, dynamics, expression, character research and the ultimate challenge-memorization of all of the above. And yet, most of do not feel we have the luxury of attending to these time-consuming details in our "practice", and ultimately become prematurely frustrated if we can't cram a piece into our heads, I even have students who are checking  Facebook, Twitter or text messages during their practice sessions. They are not fully in the present moment of their practice. They are not really paying attention and they are not taking themselves or the task at hand seriously.

I recall many performances where I have felt a bit like I was in a time-warp, so concerned with surviving and managing the stress of live performance and finishing in one piece that I didn't enjoy the present moment of actually singing and expressing the music.

Optimal quality and standards of excellence will ever be paramount in my own personal performance goals, but over time, I have come to value the enjoyment of the process of preparation and paying attention, in real time,  to where I am in the present moment. In performance, I'm making more of an effort to feel and experience the music as it happens and being conscious of all my senses-feeling the energy of the audience and connecting to them beyond my safe survival-oriented place. For me, every performance is a gift of present experience, at that particular point in time, feeling the magic that only live performance can achieve. It's a human experience, not perfectly digitally-mastered and manipulated. If I miss a word, or the onset of a pitch is occasionally sluggish, it doesn't seem to matter in the overall scheme of things. The present moment is a precious thing and I believe we all need to be paying better attention. 



At the beginning of every academic year, I drive on to our beautiful St. Paul university campus with a mixture of wistfulness, savoring the last precious days of summer, time at my sewing machine, working in my garden, attending summer music festivals, people-watching at the State Fair, combined with a wonderful sense of growing anticipation and excitement in contemplating meeting my new and reconnecting with my returning students. I think of all the new music that will be learned, the personal, artistic and technical growth that will happen with each one of us, their teacher, included.

Fall is a time of transition but also of renewal, a reaffirming of discipline, self-examination, goals, and perspective. 



The following may seem an unusual blog entry for the website of a professional singer and voice teacher, however, the more I actively perfect my sewing and quilting skills,  the more I realize how many similarities there are to the two main areas of interest that give me the greatest joy in life, musical expression and working with fabric and design.

I was named for my maternal grandmother, Katherine, who was a talented quilter but sadly died in her mid-thirties.  Although she died before I was born, perhaps the most significant and tactile connections I have to my grandmother Katherine are her quilts. Among her wonderfully-crafted surviving textile treasures is a “signature quilt” which features names, places and dates ranging between the years 1930-31. The handwriting of the different individuals is embroidered in the middle of the multi-colored “Dresden Plates” design. Though this particular quilt is stained and showing definite signs of wear and tear, it is of particular value to me because it contains signatures of several female relatives from my mother’s side of the family including my maternal great-grandmother, Lydia,  who’s “Singer” treadle sewing machine I count as one of my most prized possessions to this day.

Katherine’s unfinished quilt blocks remained stored in my mother’s cedar chest until my mother’s death twenty years ago at which time they were passed on to me. The unique collection of 11 X 11 squares, fashioned out of muslin and hand-crafted appliqued designs, had rarely seen the light of day since the 1930s. All of the now vintage fabrics used in my grandmother’s quilt blocks remain in un-faded, pristine condition, providing a rare glimpse into the styles, hues and trends from a different time in history.

The first of Katherine’s quilts I finished was an “alphabet” quilt. It featured appliquéd letters and corresponding characters for the entire alphabet. including the “M-for Music” block, which included a cluster of eighth notes. When finishing this project, I elected to hand-quilt the layers, employing “echo” stitches around my grandmother’s design. To my surprise, this hand-quilting process yielded an unexpected and profound effect on me--a connection to my grandmother that was tangible and tactile, much more so than old photos of her ever had been.  I was uncertain whether my finishing choices were what my grandmother would have ultimately chosen had she lived to finish the quilt herself, but I took inspiration from her other finished pieces in addition to researching photos of other quilts made during the 1930s. I added elements of my own personal design style and techniques into the process as well. In the end, it was satisfying to know that the quilt blocks were no longer sitting in a cedar chest in separate pieces waiting to be a complete picture. The finished quilt was now finished and ready to be enjoyed.

I began thinking how the experience I describe above relates to the process of interpreting, practicing and performing pieces of music. I wonder what Franz Süssmayr may have felt when penning an ending to the unfinished portion of Mozart’s requiem. When a string quartet ceases playing the unfinished movement of Bach’s Musical Offering, the effect is very profound, as if time stands still. Even when a composer’s composition is essentially finished, the realization of his or her vision finds its ultimate completion in the form of live music. The performer takes the composer’s blueprint, interprets it and the work is then brought to life, sometimes centuries later.

With every passing year, a performer’s interpretation of the composition is informed by new history, life experience and musical style.  This being said, I believe performers must respect the performance practice from the composer’s time as well. The finished composition, while essentially complete in its conception and transcription, is in flux until it is performed and heard live, unlike a painting, sculpture, or novel, which attains their final state when the artists and authors deem them complete.  Poetry, to me, falls somewhere between whereby a piece may resound nicely when never read aloud.  Music, on the other hand, must be heard to come to fruition.

Similar to the feelings I described in completing my grandmother’s unfinished quilts, I've often sensed a close connection to the music of a composer that lived centuries ago. Hearing and performing music of a different period in time often triggers surprising, unexpected emotions and sometimes a sense of wonder and joy when it is heard and experienced beyond the printed page. I remember how I felt when I heard Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for the first time-as if I was listening through a window into seventeenth century Venice where the piece was first performed. I felt transported in time, connected to the composer and the culture in which he lived. It’s an eternal and timeless feeling when the notes preserved on the page become alive in audible form.  

Although I never knew my grandmother Katherine, my hands have moved in tandem with hers, teaching me about the stitching techniques and patterns of design from the time in which she lived. With the music I perform, there is a lasting, creative connection to the sounds the composer first heard in his or imagination and then later given a live voice beyond the printed page. Both of these legacies will be passed on to future generations and provide a timeless connection to the senses.

Locksmith, Detective, Puzzle Solver


The three roles specified in the subject line above describe some of the many hats I wear, both as performer and voice teacher, the latter of which can be extended to Counselor, Coach, Cheerleader, and Confidant.   There is a trust factor which must be present in all facets of being an artist and also between teacher and student. As performers we need to trust ourselves, our preparation and our ability to express and communicate the music. As students, we trust our teachers’ educated ears and observations but we also must show up to our lessons having done the necessary and in-between discovery and practice as well.

When performing and practicing, I need to unlock my physical tension, jaw, shoulders, abdominal muscles, knees, etc. I must also be receptive to fresh aspects of the music, text and characters in addition to my preconceived notions and what others have found in the music before me.  I need to unlock my imagination which is the key to exploring the composer’s and poet’s inspiration in the process of creating their work.  I search for clues to the composer’s motivations in the text and musical phrasing, the harmony, the rhythm, the word stress and repetition, and contrast of the same.  I ask the following questions: who is this character, really? Where did he or she come from and at what point in history did the character communicate the emotion expressed in the text and the music?  Why is this character singing this song and to whom?  

In addition to my performance practice, my complementary teaching hats come into play when I encourage my students to do the same things I describe in the previous paragraph in their own practice, study and performance. If the artistic process of discovering music is “locked” or stuck, I need to help them investigate and discover why they are immobilized, not only musically but personally as well. When a student comes into a lesson burdened and overwhelmed by personal turmoil, frustration, depression and defeat, singing often needs to wait until they can identify and articulate to themselves what they’re dealing with and move forward.   A lesson is a success when a student departs my studio with curiosity, inspiration and a determination to find answers to their questions in their future study and practice.

Putting the pieces of the artist’s puzzle together requires coordination.  First, a singer must achieve physical coordination which very often takes more time to implement and then rely upon than the student or artist believes it should.  Technical proficiency makes the notes, rhythm, dynamics, text, memorization, emotions, expression and, most importantly the communication, come alive.  Even though the artist has an idea of what he or she is ultimately striving for in a song or aria, it often takes many weeks or months to physically and mentally coordinate all the components together to form a complete performance result.  Even then, the best performing artists—singers, instrumentalists, actors and dancers—tell us that new realizations frequently occur years after a piece is performance ready.

Striving to successfully achieve the above brings me to my next subjects; practice and realistic expectations. Many students have a skewed sense of the time required to achieve the desired results.  Students often expect instant results, and have little patience for the process required to bring about excellence. The instantaneous gratification of Google searches, text messages and Twitter does not correspond to effectively learning notes, rhythms, dynamics, text enunciation or memorization, all of which are required to give one confidence as a performer and the foundation required to interpret a work of art.   I more recently have come to tell my students, “When you honestly can look me in the eye and tell me that you have diligently and methodically practiced your vocal exercises, even those that you find challenging, your high and low notes and the music and have still not progressed, then you have earned the right to be frustrated about a less than optimal result.”  I have yet to encounter a frustrated student who truthfully can say he or she has put in the regular, advised hours and method assigned to them.  More often than not, after questioning and examining the actual amount of regular practice time spent to accomplish students’ goals, many realize they have dedicated sub-standard, if not minimal time, to achieve the results they are expecting. It reminds me of the patient who eats a less than nutritional diet, never exercises, doesn't get enough sleep and burns their candle at both ends. This person goes to his or doctor and says “I don’t understand while I feel tired all the time, am depressed and have no energy.  ‘Fix me.’”

The thought-provoking author, Malcom Gladwell, observes in his recent book, Outliers, that musicians tend to become proficient on an instrument after ten thousand hours of practice--minimum. His hours-practiced calculation may be overly stated, but it is my own observation that years of effort are required, even for the most gifted.  Instrumentalists tend to reach their hours-practiced benchmarks much sooner than singers, probably because they typically start their formal study at a much younger age. Additionally, if one sings for too long any given day, he or she may experience vocal fatigue and sometimes regress because of the necessary recovery required.  Singers often must practice for many years before they reach an effective hours-practiced benchmark. Those who have studied an instrument in addition to their voice tend to do better overall and progress faster as singers because they more often have learned the disciplines discussed above required to master the elements of music.

I have a promising new student this year who was a competitive figure skater while in high school.  This young woman really “gets it” where discipline and realistic practice expectations are concerned.  She is patient and methodical with her weekly practice, and currently is making the fastest progress in my studio.  She has reinforced to me that the process of preparation, and not becoming obsessed with the end product, brings a greater likelihood of success.  All performers want successful results to be sure, but with methodical practice we often find a sense of personal authenticity, confidence and a fresh perspective within our expression of music and text. 

The practice, interpretation, performance and teaching of music should never become stagnant.  Even when my students are performance-ready and might think they have learned all there is to know about a particular piece, I encourage them to permit their ever-enriching life experiences to change the way they view the music with every passing day.  I watch in them and in myself as the overall picture shifts and alters; the colors change for them and for me.  I hope there is always something new to discover about a piece of music, especially when returning to it after a period of time. I have posted two words outside my teaching studio, “Ancora Imparo” (I am still learning). I never want to stop learning something new about teaching, music and life.


What "free-motion" quilting and singing have in common

Lately I've been finishing a large quilt that I've created from several opera tee shirts my daughter has collected from recent productions she’s performed in with various opera companies during the last several years.

Even though I've made a number of quilts before, I have only recently learned how to employ a “free-motion” quilting technique when machine-quilting all three layers of the quilt together. The setup steps for successful free-motion quilting involve minimizing the sewing machine thread tension, reducing the stitch length to 0 and disengaging all the mechanical devices that grip and feed the fabric through the machine, such as is employed in the regular, straight-stitch sewing process. Pretty much the only things left to use are the needle and thread, while your hands guide the fabric along in the process of creating your overall quilting design.

What I’ve learned from this relatively newly-acquired skill, is that for the best overall result, I must relax in the process and let my hands move freely. My first frustrating attempts at this method were greatly influenced by my natural tendencies to apply too much precision and control, an approach that in this case, ultimately yielded excessive stitch tension, broken threads and a high incidence of needing to pick out unsightly stitches, causing me to start all over again. Through much ensuing practice, trial and error, I finally have begun to get the hang of just relaxing and moving with a constant rhythm and flow. I must simply let it happen. Ah ha! Here is how this particular sewing process relates to singing, especially when negotiating free high notes and low notes too for that matter.

What I've observed in myself and my students is that the more singers try and control their voices when singing in the upper and lower parts of their range, (excessive pressure, tonal weight, jaw and tongue tension, pulling the tongue back, pressing the tongue down and raised laryngeal position) the greater occurrence of uneven results there will be (cracked notes, feeling like you’re strangling, vocal strain, possible vocal injury; a lot of effort for very little reward). Such over-controlling, self-sabotaging activity applies to negotiating register transitions or “passagio” in one’s singing range as well. I certainly recognize that there are many things to coordinate when singing freely and naturally; consistent commitment and connection to the breath for one.

What I've ultimately taken away from my recent free-motion quilting efforts is similar to what I've found to be effective as a singer and teacher: to achieve the best results, one must prepare, practice often, be patient, relax and let it happen. 





Sewing Soprano

A sister sewing/musician friend of mine strongly encouraged me to blog about the fact that in addition to my being a singer/voice teacher, I'm also a seamstress and quilter. I've noticed that many people in the performing arts are talented in other art forms as well. This makes sense to me because of the common basic element of creative expression that exists in all art forms. I also enjoy calligraphy, drawing, writing poetry and songs and and solving puzzles of all kinds. Alas, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that I also build wood furniture and know my way around a router and miter saw!!!

So how does my sewing influence my singing and teaching? I'll share a recent analogy I used with one of my students when addressing the subject of baroque ornamentation.

I start with a basic pattern for a simple A-line skirt. The pattern on its own is shaped well and functions efficiently. However, if I decided to add a yoke, pockets, extra vertical seams, contrasting fabrics, a different hem line, pleats, ruffles, buttons etc., these are styling choices that will give my basic skirt some unique, enhanced (and hopefully tasteful) definition and variety. This sewing analogy seemed to make sense to my student because she was able to visualize what I was talking about and immediately relate to the concept and goals of ornamentation.

An esteemed colleague of mine, pianist, Charles Kemper, once described ornamentation to me another way that I really liked. He said the object of ornamentation is like a women wearing jewelry as opposed to a decorating a Christmas tree. The object of jewelry is to enhance the beauty of the woman wearing it. The goal of decorating a Christmas tree is often to have so many ornaments on it that one almost cannot see the green of the tree.

Back to sewing; while ultimately therapeutic and rewarding, I find this textile art form to be a lesson in patience, trial and error. (Like practice) Even though I have goals and a clear concept of what I'm aiming for, I also have to have a sense of humor when things don't go according to plan and know when to let things go and move on. Kind of like performing!






Why I Love Chamber Music

When I share with people why I love chamber music so much,  I tell them that for me, it all boils down to collaboration and dialog between musicians. Yes, singers are musicians too!! While its true that I have the additional component of singing and expressing text while I perform, my instrumental colleagues and I must strive to achieve a sense of ensemble at all times. In Baroque music, the vocal part often feels like an instrument in the orchestra, singing duets with a violin or flute for example. I don't have the mindset that the orchestra is accompanying me. There is often a playful interchange of imitation when employing ornamentation or dynamics. This kind of communication and spontaneity between musicians in chamber music is magical when we get it right, as if time is suspended and we are in a moment of rhythmic and harmonic connection that transcends ego, competition, judgement and the pressure of the outcome. We are daring to be in the moment and the resulting effect for everyone involved is timeless.

Chamber music is intimate and immediate. When you can see the faces and reactions of your audience, there is a tangible energy that flows between all parties involved. It is a human connection that our overly-exploited world benefits from. Chamber music is a genre that nurtures a tangible meeting of minds, hearts and souls.

What I've Learned About Teaching from Stepping Away from the Piano

When searching for a private voice teacher, the presently accepted and presumed expectation for potential students (and their parents if younger than college age) is that it will be a one-stop-shopping affair, including the study of vocal technique, a variety of different musical styles, repertoire and language coaching, dramatic interpretation and expression and the added benefit of a built-in, song learning accompanist.

As a voice teacher with over twenty years of experience, I have engaged in all of the above, yet I find I am ultimately a better teacher when I step away from the piano and teach on my feet, walking around my students, observing their posture and alignment and and giving me the ability to look into their mouths to see if they are holding tongue tension there. I also move around with my students (yes I ask my students to move when they sing, especially  when then are physically locked and they are having a tough time feeling the rhythm of the music).

My students are often asked to sing a capella instead of my spoon-feeding their every note. It amazes me that many singers cannot sing a descending major scale in tune by themselves. This is often one of the first thing I insist they learn to do without the assistance of the piano. Not only do my students sing better in tune with themselves, they learn to be independent of the piano, accompaniment tract or whatever else they have come to rely on.


The University where I teach has a wonderful student accompanist program which acts as training ground for building collaborative skills, especially for our piano majors. I think this program makes a lot of sense for these students because, in addition to teaching piano lessons, a large part of their professional lives will be spent accompanying singers and ensembles.

Coaching student accompanists/collaborative pianists and singers in voice lessons is definitely one of my passions. My voice students learn to interact, communicate, and lead with their partners. The pianists learn to listen, breath, balance and sync with the singers they play with.

The beneficial result of this teaching model is that my voice students have my full attention in lessons rather than the distraction that potentially results from my reading and playing music at the keyboard while attempting to listen and pay attention to their singing.

While I respect and admire my vocal colleagues who are able to effectively multi-task in this way, for me, stepping away from the piano makes me a much better teacher on many levels. One-stop-shopping may not always be the answer. 

Here is a link to a blog that describes the difference between a voice teacher and vocal coach which echoes what I've said above; 

Those who can, also teach!

While it's true that some wonderful voice teachers are not active performers for a variety of reasons, the old adage, "those who can't, teach", is often a misrepresentation of what is really the case when it comes to performing and teaching.

In my own circumstance, I've become a better singer because of my teaching and a better teacher because of my personal performance experiences, passing what I've learned on to my students. I hope that I practice what I preach when my students see and hear me perform. I also want my students to find their own authenticity when they sing and not just be a carbon copy of someone else.

On the flip side of this subject, some of the most gifted singers do not necessarily make the greatest voice teachers. They often do not have the time, patience, empathy or passion to embrace the learning process in a younger, less experienced singer.

There sometimes seems to be a stigma about singers who teach. This doesn't appear to be the case in the instrumental field. Maybe there is a prevailing assumption that teaching wears on the voice, or that one cannot travel and be away for extended periods of time if tied to a academic teaching position.

Here's what I know to be true from experience:

I've learned to let my students sing more during their lessons and for me to demonstrate/model less. I must also support my speaking voice when I teach and methodically warm up my singing voice prior to conducting my first voice lesson of the day. Rescheduling lessons on the day of a performance is optimal and yields my best results, physically and mentally.

Lastly, professional singers who also teach shouldn't buy into or perpetuate this skewed sense of an either/or stigma, We can achieve balance.

I'm reminded of something Kristin Chenoweth said last summer at the Hollywood bowl after local voice teacher, Sarah Horn, sang an impromptu duet with her from Wicked; "This woman is teaching our children!" Imagine that, someone who can really sing can also teach!