Our voice is us.

Amy Cheifetz Billings - Voice Studio

Community

Posted by on Sep 16, 2014 | 0 comments

I have been a member of many groups and associations in my life- neighborhoods, universities, theatres, choirs… but I have never felt more truly a part of a community as I do now in Salem. This feeling of being included, of belonging, has been coming on gradually since we moved in 2011, but it has been in the forefront of my awareness this month.

My neighborhood, “Gaiety Hill,” a few blocks square, has a Labor Day picnic ‘in the alley’ every year.  We were sitting at one end of said alley and I could see this long spread of people gathered to break bread together, laughing, talking, sharing each other’s lives- a group of people who would probably be strangers if not for their choice of house, who have decided to care about one another, look out for one another… it took my breath away. This is my home! These lovely people are our friends, our guardians, our source of information. They gave me a bridal shower, they sent kind words and beautiful flowers when my mother passed away, they even make music with me. I always knew it was a unique, close knit neighborhood since my parents bought our home here in 1991. But as an adult, living here full time, I am in awe of it and blessed to belong.

And then there is Pentacle Theatre. I owe such a debt of gratitude to Robert Salberg who invited me in to this lovely community of actors, singers, musicians- wonderful humans who make theatre for the joy, fun, and art of it. I do remember feeling very attached to my first theatre company in California, but I was so young (9-13), that I didn’t fully appreciate what I had until I didn’t have it anymore. So now that I have that again, I am highly aware and sensible of the honor and privilege to be a part of this company. Being able to do what I love with like-minded individuals while still being able to come back to the comfort of my own home every night… that is happiness.

I never blogged about our wedding (which by the way featured music from BOTH classical and Musical Theatre, since that is my recurring theme) but I felt the prominent stirrings of this special fortune of community there. Of the 100 guests, I would guess about half came from our new lives here in Salem. I loved watching old and new friends mingle and make friendship connections as well. So I guess that is my special, custom-made community!

And yet, so as not to get too saccharine, this closeness is sometimes a double-edged sword. There is no anonymity here. When you screw up, which I unfailingly do at alarmingly regular intervals, everyone knows it. And all I can hope for is forgiveness and second (or third, or…) chances from these same lovely, welcoming people, now no longer strangers, but friends. As I have written about before, when I first moved to New York City, I craved the anonymity the city allows. I liked not knowing the masses of humans that shuttled past me and that they did not know me, enjoyed being able to go about my business unnoticed. But that got old, dangerously isolating and lonely after more than a decade. Now there is warmth and comfort in familiarity and accountability. The innerconnectedness of all things Salem (and its environs) is more fascinating and fun than six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

If I want anonymity, I’ll go to Vegas.

So thank you, Salem. Thank you, friends and neighbors. Thank you, colleagues. I appreciate you more than you can ever know.

Read More

Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.*

Posted by on Apr 23, 2014 | 1 comment

I am always full of praise for my students’ work and progress, but I don’t thank them nearly as much as I should for all they have done and continue to do for me. This is for them (you)!

Thank you for teaching me patience. Everything, and I mean, everything in my life always seems designed to teach me about that quality I am always in short supply of: patience. It does not come naturally to me, alas. (When I played the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience, many who knew me suggested it be renamed Impatience in my honor.) Not only have my students taught me how to be (more) patient for the obvious reasons that learning takes time and manifests differently for everyone, but also, and perhaps most profoundly, for showing me what patience can accomplish. That instead of always being a torture, patience can feel remarkably good, constructive, and helpful. The rewards and the results are worth the wait.

Thank you for teaching me perseverance; otherwise known as a potent combination of hard work, the aforementioned patience, and faith in your dreams. My students should always know how much I believe in them. But they in turn have helped me believe in myself. They have certainly reinforced for me that if you love it, persevere! In this crazy profession, you never know what opportunities will appear (usually when you are not looking). Who knows what you will become, how much you can grow and develop with each passing year if you hang in there.  It’s hard, so very hard, but worth it if you love it with all your heart.

Thank you for trusting me. Singing is such an intimate, soul-baring experience and allowing someone to listen in, to critique and change the voice that is “you” is fraught with danger; it can be the best experience in the world, and the absolute worst. You can feel like you are flying and invincible or like a spot on the floor only fit to be wiped up and thrown out, sometimes in the same lesson. I always try to aim for the former but inevitably the latter happens.  I am honored that my students trust me to help them expose their vocal (and psychological) flaws and work together to find their most beautiful, unique instrument. I consider it a sacred trust and do my utmost to warrant that trust. Thank you for showing me what trust can look and feel like. And what trust can do- it makes you both a stronger and gentler human, more compassionate and more loving.

Thank you for teaching me how to teach myself. Teaching others has made me a much better performer- I endeavor to be as aware, accurate, detail-oriented and expressive as I exhort my students to be. (I also try to be as patient with myself as I am with them but…let’s not expect miracles, people!)

Thank you for constantly renewing my passion for singing, for music, for theatre, for learning.

Thank you for all the laughs. My students and I can have a rollicking good time and we STILL (and perhaps because of it) get a lot accomplished.

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your singing/musical/theatrical life. Helping someone achieve their dreams is such an honor and a privilege.

And last but certainly not least, thank you for your friendship. I do not set out to be friends with my students. Friendly, yes. Friends , no. I want to teach you to be a better singer, not be your friend or mother. BUT a happy by-product of a good, close working relationship is that sometimes we do become friends, which is a wonderful and special gift.

Thank you, all you lovely humans, who teach me so much (more than you’ll ever know) and for all that you mean to me. I am truly blessed.

 

*Quote by Chesterton

Read More

If the only prayer you say is thank you, it will be enough.*

Posted by on Mar 27, 2014 | 0 comments

A song of thanks to my teachers:

 

Thank you to Rhoda for introducing me to musical theater in the most wonderful way possible: instruction with love, respect and patience, professionalism with friendship and kindness, perfectionism with humor and understanding. For showing me what a director can do for you and how joyous being on stage can be.

Thank you to Isabelle for introducing me to classical singing in a loving, unpretentious way.

Thank you to Elizabeth for teaching me professionalism and musicianship, the hard way. For showing me that good ideas can be taken to very negative extremes. For showing me what being “mean” REALLY is.

Thank you to Rosemary and Phil who taught me the power of stillness and specificity in emotion and movement. For how to sing and act at the same time without sacrificing vocal quality. For how to program a recital.

Thank you to Julian for believing in me when no one else did. For encouraging me. For teaching me a radically new way to sing that literally and figuratively changed my life. For loving musical theatre as much as opera. For introducing me to Cornelius. For passion. For friendship. For showing me how to be a teacher, mentor and colleague all at the same time. For generosity.

Thank you to Theo for teaching me the joys of the intellectual side of music and theatre. For making me a scholar. For believing in me. For showing me that flaws show our humanity and are just as interesting (if not more so) as perfection.  For friendship.

Thank you to Cornelius for revealing MY uniquely beautiful voice. For teaching me how the voice works. For awakening and challenging the lazy part of my brain.  For finally explaining what TECHNIQUE really is. For giving me a profession that is challenging and rewarding and humbling and invigorating.

Thank you to Gary for teaching me to love German diction. For teaching me how to get inside of a song with your ear, mind and heart. To dissect music in order to make it whole.

Thank you to Anne for being patient with a new teacher and showing me how to be successful with young, beginning students. For showing me that simplicity can be a virtue and a saving grace.

And finally, and really, she should go first, thank you to my mother, Joan. Thank you for always believing in me. For introducing me to Musical Theatre in the first place. For letting me listen to all your original cast recordings. For singing along. For always supporting me. For schlepping me to lessons and rehearsals and performances. For collecting inspirational stories that still stay with me no matter how I wanted to dismiss them at the time. For counseling me through the toughest times. For your enduring wisdom.  For helping me to keep going no matter the obstacles. For drying my tears and strengthening my resolve. For always understanding. For being my biggest fan. For smiling the biggest, most ridiculously wonderful smile during every performance. For unconditional love.

I am a product and an amalgam of all of these people and their teachings. They are with me all the time, whispering in my ear, guiding me, reminding me, warning me… how to be and how not to be as a teacher to myself and others.

Thank you with all my heart.

 

*Quote by Meister Eckhart

Read More

101 Reasons Why Singers are Crazy, Installment 1

Posted by on Mar 11, 2013 | 1 comment

101 Reasons Why Singers are Crazy, Installment 1

Please keep in mind that I, Amy Beth Cheifetz, am proudly one of those “crazy” singers. We ALL are, no matter how normal one may appear on the outside.  It’s an occupational hazard. So let us begin.

In no particular order…

1. We carry our instrument, our voice, with us wherever we go. It is inside us, intricately a part of our bodies, and thus subject to the whims of those bodies. Some days we feel fantastic and other days like crap, often for no apparent reason. We can eat right, exercise, get 8 hours of sleep and still feel like crap. Or we can abuse ourselves, not sleep, eat terribly, drink too much, talk too much, scream, yell and otherwise abuse ourselves and sometimes (truly) with no apparent side effects (at first). How often I’ve wished I could take my voice out, leave it in a safe place, like a piano or violin, and take it up only when needed. Alas, it doesn’t work that way.
2. Because of the above physical position of our instrument, we create elaborate rules (superstitions, mostly) of what we can and cannot, should and should not eat or drink in order to somehow keep our voice in working order. Some people forswear dairy, others swear by it. Tea seems universally to be a healing elixir but there is certainly nothing magical about it. (It certainly does feel good to a raw, sore throat though!) Soda is for some a no (me), others a yes; I had a student long ago who absolutely swore that drinking a Coke before singing was the only reason he sang well…Crazy, you say? Well, not for him. And since we all live in glass houses, it is best not to throw stones. Honey, hot sauce, bananas, ginger…the list goes on and on. We all probably acknowledge water is a good, safe bet, but I think that’s where the agreement ends.
3. Because our voice is inside us, it is also intricately, intimately connected to our psyche. My voice teacher wrote a whole book on this subject. He always said, and I completely agree with him, “our voice is us.” When we develop our voice, we are developing our psyche too. Learning to sing better (more freely, more beautifully, higher, lower, louder, quieter…) can be a profound personal experience and alter who and how we are as a human as much as how we make music. AND the throat is also the center of our emotions which is why we get “choked up” and why it’s hard to talk when we’re very emotional (crying, etc… ). So when we develop it in a profound way, we are accessing all of that: emotions and feelings and energy that may be totally unrelated to what is happening in our day-to-day lives. So the crazy singer crying outside of her voice lesson (that could have been me on the corner of 86th and West End Ave any time between 1998-2008!) or even laughing uncontrollably (also me at various times in that decade) may have just had the best lesson of her life or the worst or just releasing random pent-up emotions. See, CRAZY! But oh so worth it for the amazing experience that singing is.

Read More

Why Take Voice Lessons?

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 | 2 comments

Why Take Voice Lessons?

Why should we take voice lessons, or music lessons of any kind, for that matter? It is a frequent topic of discussion among my teaching colleagues these days as the economy continues to falter and money is tight for everyone. So why spend money on music lessons? Is it purely frivolous or could there be more lasting, substantive value to it?

At first the answer was obvious to me, after all, I’ve had a voice lesson almost every week from age 13 to 35 (and if Cornelius was still on this earth, you can bet I’d still be having lessons!). As a professional singer and voice teacher, I know that having a voice lesson is as essential as exercising, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, and sleeping- it’s just what you do to stay healthy in mind, body and spirit. It was always just something I did, had to do, wanted to do. I never questioned the need or the expense because it was a natural part of pursuing my dreams, the cornerstone of the regimen for becoming a vocal artist. The bottom line is, you go to lessons to develop your instrument; to (hopefully!) learn “technique”- that fearsome, complicated, magical word that means so much but can be so elusive. I didn’t discover how powerful and profound that word could be until I was in graduate school when I finally found a technique that actually worked for me. Developing a solid technique that you fully understand, that makes you sing better every week is indispensable and potentially life changing.

But as I thought more deeply about it, beyond the technical aspect, the other reasons for taking lessons are just as profound but not as obvious, having less to do with a career and much more to do with the development and discovery of ourselves as unique, thinking, feeling, creative beings. With every passing year, I realize that all those voice lessons over all those years helped shape and define me as a person as well as a performer.

First of all, my lessons were a wonderful outlet for me to express myself through music. Ah the beauty of an hour devoted solely to singing, communing with the music, delving into the realm of the senses and emotions. Through repertoire, I got to explore facets of myself that I didn’t know existed, or was too afraid to express “in real life;” being passionate, funny, angry, sensual…are all emotions that are not necessarily allowed in everyday life but are the very essence of music. Even with Cornelius, when my lesson was solely a half hour of technique, my mood was usually buoyant afterwards; remember that the throat is the center of our emotions and when you release tensions there and reveal truly free, vibratory sounds, it releases emotional tensions as well, opening a door for you to be a happier person as well as a happier singer. Frankly, just the act of singing has always filled me with great joy and any opportunity to do that is a plus in my book.

Lessons helped me cultivate better focus and concentration, expand my memory (a very underutilized and incredibly valuable skill), learn how to successfully multi-task (singing, acting, counting, listening all at the same time!), stretch my imagination, and develop interpersonal skills working with my teacher, accompanist, and fellow students.  I also developed poise, professionalism and confidence.

But perhaps best of all, my lessons allowed me to connect one on one each week with a professional who shared my passion for the art of music, singing and performing. I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents, but they did not know the first thing about this crazy musical world I was involved in. They relied on the brilliant, passionate musical professionals who taught me to guide all of us.  My first voice teacher, the wonderful Isabelle Goeser, was practically perfect. She taught me to be musical, vocally and theatrically expressive, introduced me to the great classical composers in a loving, supportive environment AND helped my parents understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, and gave them confidence in how I was doing it.

I spoke to bewildered and relieved parents all the time at AMDA’s graduation who were so thankful that their child had someone who understood them and could help them navigate this unfamiliar musical world. I now realize how truly important and vital that is, especially for young, aspiring singers. A teacher/mentor who shares in your passion for your art, who not only imparts knowledge tailored especially to your individual needs (this is key!), but also helps you to develop into an artist in your own right is truly a gift. I have been blessed to have worked with a handful of very special, amazing teachers whose teachings, guidance and spirit are always with me as I perform and teach.

And finally, I believe that cultivating your passion in one area develops your passion for life in general. Most of the musicians I know are intensely interested in multiple aspects of life, not just music, which makes them interesting people as well as great artists. To be a performing artist you have to know about the art, theater, philosophy, and history informing the music as well as just the music itself.

I confess that I miss having my own voice lessons terribly. I am now forced to be my own teacher since mine is no longer with us. But I feel Cornelius, Isabelle, Julian, and all the other wonderful teachers I’ve had in my life, are with me when I practice and when I teach, whispering in my ear, reminding me, exhorting me to listen, pay attention, strive for being my best self as a singer AND as a human.

Read More

Sing out, Louise! (The Performer’s Instinct)

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 | 0 comments

Sing out, Louise! (The Performer’s Instinct)

I can teach you everything you need to be a better singer: how to sing healthier with solid technique, make more beautiful, interesting sounds, sing higher, lower, softer, louder, slower and faster. I can help you have excellent diction, teach you how to stand, emote, and act while singing, even how to dress for an audition. But what I cannot teach, what is frankly unteachable, is the INSTINCT for singing and performing. In my experience you either have it, or you don’t. Let me elucidate:

I am very fortunate right now to be teaching a wonderful young lady who is preparing audition recordings for getting into college music schools. She is a marvelous student, everything that a teacher could ask for: smart, motivated, musical, and possessing a lovely voice of enormous potential with consistent glimmers of the great beauty and depth that are in her future. I knew she had an instinct for the act of singing in the way she took my direction, consistently improving both on the spot and between lessons. But what I did not know about her until this week was whether or not she had a real instinct for performing. When the spotlight was on, how would she respond? Just because you can sing, does not always mean you can perform. We have been so focused on technical issues and getting all three songs learned and polished under a looming deadline that we didn’t have a lot of time to devote to performance issues.  So the first day of actually recording came…* the pressure was on, the deadline had come, it was time to deliver… And I am so thrilled to report that it was the very best singing she had ever done in the short time we have been working together. Even in the very first take, she exceeded all my expectations. Her instinct for performing, for making music, for bringing a song to life allowed all the elements we have been working on so painstakingly to come together into a harmonious whole that was infinitely better than the sum of its parts.

And to me, that’s what it’s all about. Yes, striving for continual technical mastery is a worthy and life-long goal, but being able to make music, to entertain and move your audience, is so much more important than everything being “perfect”, whatever that means. As Cornelius used to say, “There is no such thing as perfection until you are dead. And then you are perfectly dead.”

*I must say that recording can be 100 times more stressful than actually performing live; something about knowing you are being recorded “for posterity”, so to speak, and of course the dread of knowing at some point you’ll actually have to <gasp> listen to yourself! But that is a post for another time.

Read More

Psst…Act!

Posted by on Sep 3, 2012 | 0 comments

Psst…Act!
“Acting for Singers.” I hate that title that is used so often for classes that teach singers how to act whilst singing. I hate it because to me singing and acting are synonymous; singing IS acting. If something has text, it HAS to be acted to some degree or another. And even without text, music is (usually) inherently dramatic. Just listen to a good film score to know that, not to mention the countless other incredibly dramatic instrumental pieces in the world (a favorite of mine that comes to mind is Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in Gminor). To me singing and acting have always been inseparable. This philosophy has both saved me and gotten me into trouble. Acting a song well got me through times when my voice was less than ideal and people noticed less because I was entertaining and emotional if nothing else. It is also one of the great joys of singing for me- expressing emotions that I could not put into words, trying on different characters and feelings= fun! But sometimes I used it as a crutch and put myself in vocal peril. Cornelius would often remark, “Now do it without the drama,” after I was crazy enough to sing a piece of repertoire for him. The first time he said this to me was after my rendition of Juliette’s Waltz. I was dumbfounded. How do you do that, I wondered?! How can you separate them, especially for such a character driven piece as that? Of course I quickly learned that you can and should use pure technical vocalism as an invaluable tool when tackling a song and THEN you can add in the drama. And more often than not, the drama can actually help the singing voice. The right motivation and thought behind a phrase, a note, a word, can make a difficult element come easily, a good performance into something extraordinary.

(It’s all about balance, naturally.)

But what brought this topic to mind now was my judging of the adult division at the Oregon State Fair Talent Competition yesterday. Most of the vocalists sang pop or country songs and a large percentage did not even attempt to “act” their song, emote in any tangible way, or allow their feelings about their choice of repertoire, the text, or even the very act of singing and performing to inform and enliven their performances. And it made me realize how essential some kind of acting/emoting is to a successful vocal performance no matter the genre. I mean, I always stress the importance of acting/emoting/expression to my students on a regular basis and teach them performing techniques as applied to Musical Theatre and classical music, but I rarely get a chance to address it in other musical genres. The worrying thing to me is the lack of “spark”/passion/emotion/feeling in these singers’ faces, bodies and most importantly to me, their EYES (as “they” say, the eyes are the window to the soul). Share with us your joy of singing! Share with your audience how much you love this song. You chose it, now tell us why through your performance. Tell us a story. Let us get carried away, lifted up, by the emotion, the drama, the comedy you are conveying. I knowit can be difficult, but it is as necessary as sounding good. No matter how beautifully you sing, if you are boring, I don’t care to listen/watch. Expression, emotion and musicality go hand in hand with good technical singing. Period. And if you find it difficult, seek out a coach like me who can help you do it! It will make you and your audience so much happier.

 

Read More