snow branchesAll week the weather has been beautiful, in the mid-50’s.  It has been somewhat unusual for mid-February.  But, with winter always comes a chance of snow – and a lot of it!     In Colorado, we like snow.  We also like dogs, Subaru’s and micro brewed beer.  So when the meteorologists predicted a large amount of snow equal to the label, “Snowpocalypse,” everyone headed to the grocery store.  We did too, passing partial empty peanut butter & spaghetti sauce shelves.  Now as I write this, the snow is falling with a gentle sleepy ease and the secret hope of monster accumulation.

I prepare for every gig as if it were a gigantic snow storm.  Maybe over prepare and usually very thankful.  I practice the music ahead of time, even if it is a song I have performed before.  I photo copy the music, tape it together and practice it from there.  I plan my outfit, dress and heels,  so I look great AND so that I am able to carry my Korg keyboard about 1/4 mile.  I prepare because my reputation precedes and follows me.  I must think with integrity and use my quirky experience to be the best musician in the room.

One year, on May 25th, I sang for a memorial service deep in the Black Forest east of Colorado Springs.  A lovely family who’s father passed months before hired me to be both the pianist and the cantor for a Catholic Mass they set up in their back yard.  Because of my years as a Catholic liturgist, I was able to play the mass parts, a psalm, 1 hymn, prelude and a postlude (Fantin’s solo at the end of Les Mis when her father is raised to heaven). I brought the keyboard, bench, stand, mic and mic stand, music, cables, a speaker and clothes pins to hold the music in case it was windy.

The only thing I didn’t count on….was that it would snow.

 

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Recently, I was asked by a fellow singer to be her back-up for a wedding.  She was on the edge of the flu and didn’t know if she would be able to sing the next day – on Valentine’s Day.  The music was 1 hymn and The Lord’s Prayer.  Easy enough for a days notice.  I got all the info and asked both my friend and the accompanist what the compensation was for this gig.  The answer from both were more like justifications for not getting paid. They said that this was a second marriage, only about 10 guests would attend, the bride and groom were both in their 70’s and finally, they were both good church friends.  Let’s be honest, at some point in a musicians career, the type of request and $$ become the deal breaker, a choice between “yes” and “no”.  As singers find their niche and performing community, time with family, friends, for rest, work and performing, becomes very valuable.

With this information, I declined as her sub but thanked her for thinking of me.  Within 30 minutes, I got a phone call saying the bride would compensate the singer with $150.  This, I feel is an average fee for a wedding singer.  A rehearsal of any kind, $200 is not out of range.

My point is not to talk about my fees or my ability to say no to a gig.  It is to support fellow musicians in their ability to ask for what they are worth.  Saying yes or no to a wedding, hotel entertainment or other gigs that might call your musical integrity into question, must include:

– the date of the gig – time involved at and before the gig – music required – equipment necessary – other musicians needed – other non-musicians such as the wedding couple family members involved – other musical tasks you might be expected to oversee like the soundboard or mics for the service – and your compensation delivered before the event begins. Know your ability to fulfill the above mentioned possibilities and suggest options if you can’t or don’t want to do something. You are a valuable part of this event so please step into it as if you believe that fact.  They are compensating you for your experience, education and ability.  Coming in to sing for a beautiful wedding is enough.

The first thing any singer or soon to be singer needs to do is take a long hard look at their breathing.  Learning to breath is disregarded by most, but not singers.  As I think about it, most musicians, dancers and actors think about breathing as they advance in their work. All one needs to consider is the stress and fast paced life we try to keep up with.  This life causes us to “breathe high.”  Our shoulders lift and our lungs only inflate to a fraction of their capacity. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not good.  “Breathing high” keeps us in a fight-or-flight state.

To escape the race and the confinement of a “normal” person…take some time to breathe.  Sit in a comfortable way on your chair or stand. Place open palms on the rib cage, right on right/left on left (4 fingers front, thumb facing back) and close your eyes.  Then imagine expanding your rib cage into your hands. Exhale slowly on a “hissssss.”  Now you are breathing with a fuller capacity of your lungs, allowing your rib cage to expand, internal organs to be pushed out of the way, abdominal muscles are expanding and your breath is beginning to slow. Your diaphragm, a crescent moon shaped muscle under your heart will expand and do its full job.  This is a “low breath” and what you mean when you think about “singing with your diaphragm.”

Take three “low breaths” – open your eyes – and know that you are ready to sing.  YIMG_1443ou are ready for a better view and more settled way of your own life.

saint statueSuch a harmless word, all lower case letters, humps and curves.  If it desires, music, has the power to cut through the soul of every single person.  music ignites a cold space within where a flame once roared with passion. Some days, I think music is a friend.  I have been seduced by music as if she were a beautiful Italian woman enjoying gelato on a sunny afternoon.  And I have been discarded by music as if he were a foe, taking me deeper and deeper into the guilt of not practicing enough as I suffer through a German choral piece. Either friend or foe, I know this relationship will go on.  I know I have to make a choice each day to grab the handle on the music train or call it quits.

Music – seductress, knife or gentle friend, it is none and all of these things at once.  It is a mode of enjoyment, employment, strife and bliss.  One thing I know for sure, music is no respecter of persons. It can only be its own element, curving its way through the lives, and concert halls, and memorial services of anyone who dare invite it in.  I know I must allow music to be.  To live and to burn.  And I must summon it in so I can continually become the person I am to truly be.

Beethoven believed that, “music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.” And Debussy, “I wish to sing of my interior visions with the naive candor of a child.”  Both of these composers fought to release the music within them to to world. We all negotiate, beguile, ignore, test and sometimes trick what we believe to be a piece of paper containing notes, rhythms and tempo suggestions. I may believe music is no respecter of persons, but it is a living thing that is moving even now.  I doesn’t need to respect, but I must – in order to live.

C.W. Hoffman

Reflecting on my 22 years of singing I still wish that someone along the journey had told me this: “While you have been gifted with this wonderful identity of singer and vocalist it is wise to remember that it is only a part of you and not all of you.  If you find that you have other passions, pursue them.  You may find that music and singing will stay with you in your life or you may find that music will only be with you for a season.”

Being identified as a ‘singer’ at the age of ten was both exciting, ego-boosting and frightening.  I felt it as a burden and a blessing all at once.  My parents were excited to have me start private lessons.  I honestly don’t remember asking for them.  They were excited that I had a talent that was new and ‘out of nowhere’ from the family gene pool.

Throughout my high school years all of the students were required to take career aptitude tests.  I remember my results included: photojournalist, psychologist, artist, photographer and professional musician.  Because I was already taking voice lessons I kept after music as it was the easiest and most known craft to me.

I rested my entire undergraduate career on the fact that I was a singer.  Period.  My parents, while supportive of me going to college and pursuing ‘my dreams’, were just excited that there was a person with musical talent in the family.  My younger brother is also quite gifted with music as well, but was never pushed into lessons or pursuing it as a career.   Music for him was always, and is still, an enjoyable hobby.  For me I saw music as something I had to do, not necessarily something I wanted to do.  I managed to wrestle with this concept throughout my 7 undergraduate years of college and I finally let it take hold of me while pursuing my masters degree in voice performance.

My first voice teacher was a Juilliard graduate and retired opera singer.  She drove an hour and a half to teach lessons in the area where my family lived.  She must have loved teaching voice that much to drive so far.  She always had high hopes for me, as she often publicly announced.  At my high school junior recital she claimed that my name would be in lights someday.

Now, twenty years later, I still feel a pang of guilt, though, as my name and those lights have not yet appeared.  That was not my path as a singer and I have accepted that. My identity has become one of a whole person, one who still enjoys singing and performing.  One who was able to make a little bit of a living while singing at the same time.   Perhaps those lights looked different for my career, rather than being publicly displayed on a marquee.  Perhaps they shine differently and in a different way.

My advice to younger singers would be this: “Take personality tests, take career aptitude tests.  If you’re unsure as to what music means to you, what singing means to you, then consider your options regarding other careers and passions.”

I am not writing to discourage you, rather to encourage you to grow yourself as a person and singer.  Look beyond what you already know and see how you can use your talents to positively impact those around you.  If music speaks so loudly to you that you must sing or play your instrument, that’s an amazing gift to share with the world.