Finding My Voice, #249

Photo by Michele Oh

Last year, I volunteered to work for six months at The Artist Co-op, a new co-working space with rehearsal rooms, geared towards connecting and supporting artists from theatre, film, opera, dance, etc. I met actors, singers, filmmakers, producers, directors, lighting designers, dancers, and most importantly, people who have and will continue to change my life. I’m grateful to be singing in a concert to support The Artist Co-op this Friday night, and I hope you’ll attend, if you’re in the greater New York City area.

On a couple of occasions, I mentioned to members of The Artist Co-op that I wanted to learn to expand my vocal abilities to include belting and musical theatre techniques. Although I’ve had a couple of really wonderful musical theatre gigs, I always knew I had work to do to really learn how to sing that repertoire at the best of my natural ability. Having several friends in an incredibly unconventional, grammy-winning group called Roomful of Teeth, I’ve been inspired for years to learn to expand my voice outside of the purely classical realm.

Growing up, I wanted to be Debbie Gibson. I learned how to sing like her, mostly with a pop mix and an unsophisticated teenage belt when needed. One night, at a karaoke bar in Koreatown, I reached the pinnacle of those childhood dreams when, while singing “Lost in Your Eyes,” a man dropped to his knees at my feet and shouted, “You ARE Debbie Gibson!” As a fully realized adult who had earned a living as a respected classical singer for two decades, I knew I could do far more if I trained my whole voice – not to mimic an 80’s pop icon, but to find the limitless possibilities within my own voice.

When the universe speaks, I listen. Personally, this means paying attention whenever more than one source produces the same message or advice. Several people mentioned the tiny street on which I now live, for example, as I was searching for an affordable apartment in Manhattan, and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. So when two different members of the Artist Co-op praised their teacher Jon Stancato and recommended I work with him on my much of a coincidence. “Are you Jon Stancato, by any chance?” I asked, and my journey began.

Since then, I’ve had several lessons, sometimes a week apart, sometimes spread out by months because of my performing and travel schedules. Now, preparing to sing everything from Troubadour songs to Alanis Morisette with medieval harp on an eclectic concert on Friday, June 14 at the Highland Lodge in Vermont with Christopher Preston Thompson and Heidi Lauren Duke, I have the privilege of meeting with Jon weekly. He’s an incredibly intuitive coach, working with me as we experiment together to find the authentic and meaningful sounds that color each song fully and appropriately.

On days like today, feeling raw with the emotions of loss and mourning and worn down by allergies and the thicker vocal cords that greet young women once a month, working with Jon reminds me so much of my intensely mindful work with Josh Pais, or training to become a life coach. I make sounds I wouldn’t dare to make in front of almost anyone, and Jon tells me that he can learn just as much from my voice on what I would consider a bad day. I relax into the present to play with what we have, which apparently is a lot more than I expected.

Singing, as a career, creates a life of wildly glorious and meaningful highs, coupled with social needs cut short, an unparalleled need for body awareness and physical health, and constant sacrifices to keep that voice, which earns me money and keeps me fed, fresh and strong. Today, I found a new way to play with it healthily and, as I so often do on this journey, I felt at turns vulnerable, scared, empowered, and exhilarated. Finally, we found a really rich resonance with which I can play across my range, and I felt good, as we heard a knock on the door, and the lesson came to an end.

As the door opened, a classical conductor with whom I’ve previously worked and who I respect walked in the absolutely not soundproof door. We briefly hugged, and I mentioned that I was working on some belting techniques, before he said, “I know, I heard. Sounds good,” and rushed off to setup for his rehearsal. Upon exiting, I passed by sixteen of my most talented friends and colleagues from the classical singer world, half happy to see them, half awkwardly mortified that they all heard my rather vulnerable exploration of self and voice.

Although I still wonder a bit how it all sounded and think perhaps I should start audio-recording my lessons, I trust Jon’s assessment, that I sounded great, and it’s a good thing they heard me. Despite a decent deal of stigma in the classical world about non-classical techniques, I’m nothing if not a proponent for change and plan to embrace the role of helping others to both embrace and seek it. If the three deaths I’ve experienced this month have taught me anything, they’ve increased my need for vulnerability, authenticity, and a mindful exploration of life. Finding my whole voice, accompanied by a talented and compassionate guide, fills me with just the right combination of nervousness and joy that tells me I’m on the right path. I’m glad my friends heard me, and I can’t wait to sing for that audience in June. This life is worth living fully, with every color, sound, and expression I can possibly find for the artistic manifestations of my spirit… Not just tomorrow, now.

An Autumn Awakening

This last day of Autumn, I find myself surrounded by the common theme of new dreams, uncharted challenges, and new adventures to discover. Last week, blessed by four completely different performances for which to prepare and perform, I had the opportunity to check in with my incredibly talented and diverse friends and colleagues. One friend had just produced her second one-woman show. Another contemplated her next steps to her rise to hopeful fame, while a third shared her desire to sing jazz despite not knowing quite where to start. Bold steps by brave people.

Taking me to a black belt Aikido test, another adventurous man opened my eyes to the calm intensity of a challenging practice that intrigues me, and I had the chance to watch even a handful of elderly participants test for their black belt after years of training and discipline. Finally, at a party hosted by some invaluable friends, a photographer friend Michael Chadwick convinced me to run a marathon with him. So, for next Autumn, I’ve decided to run the ING NYC Marathon to support Team for Kids, a non-profit organization working to keep children active and combat childhood obesity. I’ll have more information in future posts, hopefully including details about a team to join if you’d like to take up the challenge with me! In the meantime, please consider helping me get off to a running start with a donation of any amount.

In the similar rush of these changing seasons as Autumn comes to a close, New Year’s seems already upon us, and my friends and I contemplate actions of almost spring-like renewal. In celebration of the rebirth we each have when we wake to a new day and open ourselves to new possibilities, I leave you once again with my dear friend and hero, Kara Morgan. Her ability to create her dreams literally and figuratively, always with a dash of humor, inspires me regularly to take the leaps that scare me most. May we all have such courage to wake up to our dreams this holiday season.

Dear Mom, I Heart Peer Pressure ~ 177

Flashbacks of brightly-colored public service announcements, Hallmark-like after school specials, middle school health class lectures, and visiting high school students to preach the dangers of drugs to our elementary schools flooded back one Sunday during the first phone conversation I’d initiated with my mother in weeks. Between several voiced concerns about nudity in tableau vivant, she warned of the dangers of drugs, potentially for the first time, at least in my memory. I can only assume this lecture of concerns around thirty years in the making signaled an overabundance of party photos on my Facebook page. Who knew social media geeks (myself included) could worry a mother so? Didn’t she reach her early twenties in the late sixties, after all?

Admittedly, I’ve found myself more regularly in the company of folks who attend Burning Man (via social media friends, not tableau). While I may have learned my low tolerance for alcohol the hard way on rare occasion, their free, happy, and non-judgmental attitudes encourage me to embrace the most positive version of myself that I daily seek to find. Furthermore, although I do have close friends who have done LSD, Coke, or Ecstasy, I personally haven’t ever seen anyone doing hard drugs, nor has anyone ever offered me any. Aside from the obvious fact that I love life and don’t need hard drugs to “enhance”/ruin it, I really truly couldn’t afford to buy illicit substances once, no less support an addiction.

No, fortunately for me and my sometimes worrisome yet loving mother, I happily benefit from the very best forms of possible peer pressure. Financially, many of my close friends and colleagues suffer with me in a painful recession in the arts. With varying degrees of difficulties among us, several can’t even use credit and struggle to eat while still burdened by debt. We cook for each other, recommend each other for gigs, help find work for each other whenever possible, and brainstorm together to find ways to survive well in the city and keep performing. One of the most supportive groups of people I know, the artist community in NYC really knows how to stick together and encourage other artists to work hard and spend less. Even strangers I’ve met here, through social media and Internet Week NY last year have helped me out with financial motivation. Having met some amazing folks from Mint.com at the after party for the Webby Awards, the best suggestion planted itself and germinated until today, when I finally bit the bullet and created an account at Mint. What a great site and company… The services people offer together to help motivate the world truly astound me.

In a few short weeks, my good friends Amy Armstrong and Maren Montalbano travel to the city to attend a free seminar bymarketing/career coach Dallas Travers. We’ve formed an accountability and brainstorming team of writers, singers, and actors (each of us does all three) to keep one another on task, focused on furthering our futures as performers, and persistently putting ourselves forward in auditions and contacts with companies, regardless of success or rejection. We call it “The Diva is in the Details,” and I hope we keep it and ourselves forging ahead for a long and productive time ahead.

Although not convinced my mother believes this a positive or productive influence, I likely never would have gone skydiving without my sister having tackled if first or without the insistence of my dear friend Sarah Giardina, and it changed my life. While I have diligently moved forward on my own toward finding challenges to enhance my life, writing here gives me an instant source of peer pressure, knowing that anywhere from one to hundreds of people per post daily check in to see if I remain on track. Something as common as my recurring television addiction can derail me for a long time. Then, I go on a few dates with someone who reads a great deal and rarely watches television, or I witness first hand the productivity and excellent work ethics of my friends who don’t have a TV set, and I pledge once more to forgo repeats of mind-numbing sitcoms for practicing, working, marketing, networking, exercising, or doing necessary paperwork (in other words, actually living). I head to Planet Fitness as we speak, following a morning job and breakfast with a good friend…

Serendipitously, I ran into a great friend and colleague I hadn’t seen in almost a year while working out today. He told me all about his new successes as an extra and featured performer on Boardwalk Empire and Gossip Girl, sharing with me his passion for diversifying life as a singer and actor. Recommending his casting agency, he further went on to tell of recent solo concerts he gave in China, and we chatted for nearly an hour about possibilities of working in Europe and ways to work well at the trades we love so much. Don’t get me wrong. Some singers in the city do not play as nicely, especially in the audition halls like NOLA Studios, where “old friends” trade recent credits and upcoming gigs like status symbols to make themselves seem bigger and more successful than the competition, aka their friends. Not mine.

My friends root for one another, keep each other motivated, and attend each other’s concerts wherever and whenever possible. We recommend each other for gigs, remind our friends and colleagues when their behavior has gone a bit astray, and alert them when gossip has turned to focus upon them in a negative way. Finding ways to party, relax, and have a good time together, the very best friends I could imagine keep me happy, healed, and having the time of my life while enjoying a great career that, though difficult to maintain, offers the best rewards I can imagine. You’re right, Mom. I have a lot of peer pressure living here in the city, and I enjoy a better existence because of it every day.

Defeating the Seasonal Funk, Day 147

In a funk, not quite functional, preoccupied and a bit derailed – so I felt a few days before Christmas. We all have known a stray day here or there like this. I suspect the homeless man currently ranting across the subway car at another passenger who somehow insulted his honor has had quite a few himself.

Last week, I experienced a much lesser version of such a day, bewildered by past emotions from months and even decades past in the face of present and future circumstances. Wondering if I would regret the choice to RSVP to attend Nancy Wertsch’s caroling-centric holiday party on my only full day off from singing in weeks, I dragged my issues and attitude up to Riverdale nevertheless. My good friend Alex asked, “How are you?” “Fine,” I responded not terribly enthusiastically.

We went to a local nursing home, Schervier Nursing Care Center, and donated our time and talents to wander the halls singing carols. Given the quality of the singing, we discovered many patients who seemed surprised to hear such caroling streaming through their rooms and corridors. It didn’t all go smoothly, of course. After cleaning vomit, into which I accidentally stepped, off my new boots, it seemed that one of the residents who requested our presence in their room really wanted to watch Family Guy instead. On the contrary, the patient loved us despite the background noise of the television, and everyone we encountered from the elderly to the nurses, supervisors, and maintenance workers greeted us with kindness and gratefulness.

On the fourth floor, a lovely pale-skinned woman in a wheelchair thanked us, offered to pray for us, and insisted that she would include us all in her will. Another woman painstakingly left her room with her walker to greet us in the hallway and listen. On the fifth floor, after a fantastically talented whistler couldn’t remember what carols he liked but kept whistling “Silent Night,” we began the song again for likely the twelfth time that evening.

Reminding me of our earlier encounter, my friend Alex said, “Why don’t I give you a ride home after this, and you can explain to me why you just feel fine?” At least an awkward twenty seconds later, I finally remembered to what he referred  – my mood upon entering the nursing home. “Oh, I had forgotten all about that! I’m actually doing something productive and worthwhile,” I responded, insisting upon basking in the goodness that for an evening filled the Schervier Nursing Care Center.

In an instant, I remembered caring for my grandmother for a couple of days in a similar center in Malone, NY years prior. Unlike most of the patients with whom we interacted at Schervier, she couldn’t walk by herself or even operate a wheelchair to sit and socialize with the others. Most often alone in her room, she began to lose her sense of reality, and I found it incredibly difficult to help her in conversation. Finally, on my last day visiting, I gave her a back massage. As she sat there, moaning a little and thanking me profusely, I thanked God that I could do something to make one moment of her final days just a little more livable.

Living at a much more rapid pace this year upon my return from Washington, I launched immediately into the hustle of a classical singer’s Christmas in New York, rehearsing or working at least two and often three gigs per day. I honestly forget how many Messiahs I’ve sung these past few weeks, and I know some of my colleagues worked more. Between performing in Amahl, the Messiahs, the Mozart Requiem, three Christmas services, and two temple services and recording a voice-over and with a choir for an Iranian composer,  I had plenty of stimulation. Friends somehow still managed to schedule time for lunches and coffees, two operas, overnight conversations, and a social media party. My apartment morphed a bit further, with new lighting fixtures and a few new shelves and pictures on the walls, and I survived an exhausted trip to visit family in Pennsylvania for Christmas and a blizzard that dumped a foot and a half on our Washington Heights roofs and vehicles.

Ultimately, after a moment to pause and reflect, I have so much for which to be grateful. What a wonderful, if hectic, season I’ve had! I feel infinitely better about the present and optimistic about the future. I’ve had a chance to let go of expectations and longings and, perhaps more importantly, to embrace the grand gestures of those interested and willing to make investments of time and effort in my life. Such time and effort spent for free on my only day off at the nursing home caroling party, after all, turned out to give me even more joy and fulfillment than any of the truly wonderful gigs for which I received payment.

Unfortunately, the time between Christmas and New Year’s has a reputation for inciting more depression and suicides than any other throughout the year. During these days, we pause, we reflect, and sometimes we don’t like what we have or lack. Another friend tonight confided in me that he often doesn’t feel good enough or worthy of affection from loved ones. Once we sense ourselves entering such a holiday funk, we have to climb out in ways that sometimes seem to make us uncomfortable, challenge us, and help us to refocus. I may have stepped in some vomit along the way, but giving joy to those gorgeously happy faces in a nursing home made every minute worth my time and investment. This truly is a season best spent in giving.

On a personal note, I have a very dear visitor from Washington this week and may not have a chance to write again until after the new year. May yours excite and enliven you, give you joy for the present, and show you infinite hope for the future to come. I can’t wait for us to share next year’s challenges together.