Monday, January 22, 2007

i'm going to tell you a story...

Three-part story, actually.

So far, I have only sent out domestic applications to music schools/conservatories. I've heard back from them regarding auditions:
  • The Juilliard School

  • The Peabody Institute - February 20th

  • The Curtis Institute - March 3 and provisionally, the finals on March 6

  • The New England Conservatory - March 4

Applications that still need to go out:
  • The Mozarteum

  • Conservatorio di Musica Santa Cecilia

  • The Royal Conservatory of the Hague

  • The Prague Conservatory

Whew! That's the first story. The second is related.

I must admit that I am apprehensive about the audition process, not least about the Curtis audition. Part of this is a mark of how new this is to me in contrast to analytical, academic work; it's not like the suggestion of vocal training was pushed on me from all sides because my talent was heavily evident (haha, quite the reverse!). Of course, this Curtis-anxiety is also more than a little related to the situation of having my mom as my mom, who attended Curtis as a voice student. Although she has been supportive about my decision to give music performance a good try (once we fought about it enough to realize I was serious), she's at least been honest and realistic. According to her, my voice is only so-so in quality, though she readily admits that I've made incredible progress since I started and is sometimes surprised by what can happen (cf. my first high C that was actually sung, not yelled). That being said, her prediction is that I won't be accepted either at Curtis or Juilliard, at least half of which is now true.

My original trepidation about Curtis is that since they do not pre-screen with recordings, I could be invited to audition for them and completely waste their time (though, to be honest, a 10 minute preliminary audition, even with all of the scheduling demands, would seem to be easily covered by application and audition fees, so I need to get over this odd feeling of fraudulence). With Juilliard (and Peabody), at least they could review the recording and decide if what they heard was sufficiently interesting enough to invite for a live audition. At least, that's what I hear in my head, which tends to help calm the nerves.

So, I present enough promise to be invited to audition at the Peabody but not Juilliard. Fulfillment of another prediction -- this time by Stanley Cornett of the Peabody faculty. When I first arrived in the area, it was with the intention of attempting to find a Peabody faculty member to give me private lessons, with an eye to apply and attend the conservatory. When I met with him for a consultation, I sang very poorly. At the time (about a year ago), I hadn't had vocal instruction for over 6 months, and I was trying to figure things out on my own, which was kind of a lottery approach. In any case, he had semi-compliments about my aggressive - I think that's the word he used - approach to singing, which is somewhat amusing since that's what my violin teacher said about my playing when I played my audition for her as a wee beteen (although I had studied with another teacher for some time and was auditioning for her as the last hoop I was going to jump through as a decision to see if I wanted to quit playing, I think of my last violin teacher as my main influence, herself a Curtis graduate). Stan asked if I was aware that going back to school would be pricey and that work in this field was far from easy. He also encouraged me to apply, saying that I would probably get in, though I would be considered in a lower tier of students -- students that didn't get into other top-tier schools such as Curtis and Juilliard (the exact names he threw out), but I sensed that he didn't think it worthwhile, judging from his demeanor, though that easily could have been a conflation of my overwhelming sense of shame that was washing over me for singing so poorly.

The good news is that even by the time I made my audition tape for Juilliard and Peabody, the voice had advanced an incredible amount. From that time until now, I think the voice's development has made another series of important breakthroughs. Although he's probably right that the voice, at least now, just isn't cut out for Juilliard or Curtis, I've got about a month to really grit my teeth and work right up until the last moment. This is the first series of finish lines in the short-term goal of getting into a program (attending and finishing the program will be a much bigger goal/challenge, but one step at a time), and I want to be able have fun and give everyone a run for their money.

Which leads me to the third story. I discovered further exactly what it means to sing without the throat being unnecessarily involved. The first lesson that I had since I returned from vocal bootcamp, my teacher was pleased and approved, but we focused a lot on vowel fidelity and non-manufacturing (which are problems of mine, but my mother, who has very specific ideas of what is a "valuable" voice and what isn't) since that was becoming fuzzy. Specifically, I had amalgamated the "O" vowel with the "Ah" vowel and that's not so good when that happens in every part of the range.

I was working on it yesterday, singing through the scale exercises based on "vien, diletto," but making sure that I was singing "ah" and not "o". I had to rework a lot of things -- but primarily, I had to re-jigger my approach to the "ah" vowel in the middle voice. Even at comparatively comfortable pitches, the "ah" vowel was lacking that open looseness I felt with the "o" vowel that allowed an easy cascade of rapid notes. And I realized that the reason why I kept mixing my vowels. "O" as a vowel, opened up relatively easily in my voice. Expanding its resonance was fairly easy, and it also felt and sounded beautiful to me as well as to an outside listener. I could feel my body vibrating and the sound rolling out from me. It's an addicting feeling, even though I'm sure I haven't even tapped into how far I can take it. So there's always the urge to go back to that. What I discovered when I finally sang on "ah" with the open looseness of "o" is that although the physical, sound-creation sensations were similar, the sensation of sound could not be more different. "Ah" felt coarse, like it had too much chest registration in it, and while I still need to play around with that aspect to it, the fact of the matter is that "Ah" is just not going to sound like "o" in my head and I should stress it. The little throat catch that I had been making until yesterday was a result of my trying to 'manufacture' a like sensation for the "ah" vowel. This discovery eventually freed up the scales, and I was cascading notes again with a greater freedom and a greater joyousness. Amusing to say the least, since Cornelius Reid writes about purity of intonation and vowel and freedom from throat constrictor tensions would allow flexibility in the voice; and I had worked a little bit of that out using flexibility as the key. Hee.

As thrilled as I was about that discovery, there was something even more. My teacher is either insane or thinks much more highly of me/my voice development than I had originally thought. She gave me no fewer that 7 new songs to work on, 2 arie antiche, 4 Ralph-Vaughan Williams songs, 'Non siate ritrosi,' and 'Avant de quitter ces lieux.' And this is on top of keeping my previously designated audition repertoire in shape. And on top of looking for some german repertoire.

When she threw out 'Avant' as something to look at, she then thought about it, and asked me if I thought that was too ambitious. I wasn't familiar with it at all, so I told her I had no idea. But, I figured, I'd look at it -- if it turned out unsuitable, we could just drop it. So that night, I fished out that G. Schirmer book of baritone (and other voice parts in other volumes) solos and took a quick look at it. Ok, F is the highest note and it happens only 3 times. The rest of it didn't look like it had a terribly high tessitura. It looked alright. So after going through and reading the text, puzzling out the french I didn't know (just a couple words), and sight-reading through a couple times, I figured I'd give it a listen to see what was going on.

I popped onto youtube and watched Troy Cook, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Leonard Warren, Alan Titus, an older Cappucilli, and Simon Keenlyside sing it; I think I heard Warren first. I don't actually like Warren's sound quality all that much, though clearly, he's able to do some amazing things with it -- it goes without saying that he sounded completely at ease with it. Alrighty, then. After listening to a couple others, I began to wonder. Huh...why do they sound kind of funny and why do they look like it's effortful. Couple F's?

I peered at some of the comments and realized something. Although the aria was composed separately in the key of D flat major, when it was inserted into the opera, it was transposed up a step to the key of E flat major; those Fs are now Gs.

So when it came time to look at the things I had been asked to look at on Saturday, I pulled out 'Avant de quitter' in this weird state of "err...can I do this?" I had decided that I might as well learn at it in the higher key. I could drop it down a step with more ease than raise it from the lower key. Warbling through, I was kind of amazed at how easy it was going. At the time, I attributed it mainly to the psychological effect of seeing D flats while singing E flats. Of course this helped, but it was only later when I figured something out. The first came and went without a hitch. In fact, I had to check to see if that was in fact a G that I had sung. Yup. Dead on. It wasn't without its problems -- the pitch is still not hooked completely up with the rest of the voice and there are still some issues with dismounting from high notes when switching from a vowel to a consonant -- but the actual ascent and sustaining of the pitch were much easier and more natural. The hell...?

E flats were dead on and had much more spin than I expected. G flat, though the poorest of all the high notes, didn't present nearly as much trouble as it normally does (since it sits on a really weird spot in my voice at the moment). Second and third G's were pretty much the same as the first. I was kind of stunned. Further, the voice felt completely fine and I still had notes down to the very lowest ones that I had sung when I started (this is a pretty good barometer of how much throat constriction is going on).

After a quick pause to let the voice calm down a bit, I went back to the G's since I wanted to work on going from the high G to the B flat to see if I couldn't improve the transition. Wouldn't you know it -- I had worked on it multiple times before checking pitches on the piano to learn that from its higher key, I had accidentally been practicing it up a half-step from that, so I was singing A flats.

At this point I was dumbfounded and absolutely certain that I was playing on a piano that had gone flat. Except...the low notes were exactly where I expected them to be, and if the entire piano was flat, it was still remarkably in tune with itself. Of course, as the practice wore on, the familiar difficulty with high notes returned. But at that point, I was so determined to figure it out, I start figuratively bashing my head against the wall to get it work out, which, of course, wasn't all that effective.

On a whim, I thought I'd practice my "ah" vowel lower in range to incorporate the open loose sensation into my muscle and sensory memory. On a further whim, I thought I'd check the high lying phrase from "Avant" right after.

G came sailing out without a hitch. Aha! The little throat grab had been responsible all along! Grrrrr! It seems like this issue should have been cleared out long ago -- but it's been a persistent problem, and although I'm sure my teacher knows that something is up, the exact nature of it isn't immediately apparent. More and more, I'm learning things from my own voice. It's a good feeling (it fits with my overall goals of self-sufficiency in all aspects of my life), and I think it means that I'm on a good path for now.

Let's see how much work I can get done in a month! Renji sez: You're gonna do WHAT?


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