Our voice is us.

Amy Cheifetz Billings - Voice Studio


Posted by on Sep 3, 2012 | 0 comments

“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.


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Just plain brawn makes me yawn*

Posted by on Jul 14, 2012 | 0 comments

Just plain brawn makes me yawn*

I have had some wonderful, energizing weeks of teaching recently. Besides really liking and connecting with these lovely humans, one of the reasons I have especially enjoyed these past six weeks or so is that I have been teaching a number of the same students consistently and they are experiencing noticeably positive, fundamental changes in their singing lesson after lesson. There is always an initial improvement, but just like any other form of exercise, developing the voice takes time, consistency, hard work, and COURAGE to achieve results that last. I know this, I teach this, I witness it all the time with my students, have experienced it first hand in my own singing, so why is it I temporarily forgot about this process as I embarked upon a different but related course of training?

The big reveal: I have started working out with a personal trainer. (I know, crazy, huh?) At first it was terribly difficult and actually rather demoralizing and unquestionably humbling as I discovered how truly out of shape I am, how weak, how jelly-like! And then, of course, there was (is) the incredible soreness afterwards, sometimes to the point of immobility. However, in the past few weeks I have noticed both my body and my mind have changed suddenly and significantly. Yes, I am noticing more tonicity in my muscles, more endurance, etc…but it’s the mental aspect that is more profound. The first and perhaps most surprising change is that I actually look forward to the sessions now. (!) I approach them as an adventure and wonder what I will push my mind and body to do that day, with the essential element of Ed’s positive, persistent motivation and instruction, of course. Which brings me to the second huge realization and change in my thinking: the workouts are hard, sometimes seemingly impossible, but I have learned that I can do them, maybe slowly, but certainly surely. And I want to do them, which is perhaps even more amazing. I would never have been able to accomplish these physical feats on my own before embarking on this course of training, not only because I did not have the technical knowledge, but more importantly, I did not have the mental fortitude to do them. I needed the guidance of an expert teacher with the passion, patience and technical expertise to guide me through the dark forest of my fear, the stumbling block to all change. (Thank you, Ed Weamer!) Having someone help me get over my fears, making me literally and figuratively jump in with both feet, pushing my mind and body past their comfort zones is the only way to see true change and always brings me amazing, positive results. Which brings me back to the vocal corollary… (You didn’t think this post was going to be all about CrossFit, did ya?)

Since I started working out in this way, I have been reminded over and over again of my decade of lessons with Cornelius, especially the first few grueling years when he was completely restructuring my voice. (Oh how I miss my voice lessons and the exhortations of Mr. Reid!) In Cornelius, I found what I needed so desperately:  a teacher of unrivaled technical brilliance with unparalleled insight into both the vocal mechanism as well as into the psyche** of the singer as it relates to the act of singing. And, thankfully, he was all about the work, the discovery, the next level of achievement; no hidden agendas, no fatherly instincts, just professional and yet personal. Furthermore, since I completely trusted Cornelius, as I do Ed, I could totally give myself over to the experience, no matter how demanding, knowing that he had my best interests at heart and I would be that much stronger and healthier for it, mentally, physically, and vocally. For me there is something very exhilarating and motivating about submitting myself to this kind of focused, intensive work for a designated and finite period of time under the tutelage of a master technician/teacher. The lesson/session forces me to face my fears, confront obstacles and make positive, profound changes- no procrastinating allowed! Cornelius challenged me to uncover my vocal flaws, expose them to the harsh light of day and actually fix them instead of artfully covering them back up.  Just as I thought I could never in a million years make it through the “Filthy Fifty” (look it up, it’s horrific!), nor did I ever think anyone could ever solve my tremolo (a very fast vibrato, FYI). But I did in fact make it through the entire “Filthy Fifty” without expiring on the spot and Cornelius successfully eradicated my tremolo! So, it took me 53 minutes to do the workout and it took a few years of 3 or 4 lessons a week to get rid of all the constriction causing the tremolo. But when all is said and done, I have come to believe (grudgingly, I’ll admit) that it doesn’t matter how long it takes when the results are so amazing and important. Obviously I need to learn this lesson more than once: hard work, patience and persistence with the right guidance equals success! Here’s to the “Filthy Fifty” in 45 minutes and always more beautiful, healthy singing for everyone!

P.S For anyone in the Salem, OR area, I highly recommend PhysEd and Ed Weamer if you are interested in working with a personal trainer.

*A lyric from “The Body Beautiful” by Bock and Harnick

**I highly recommend reading Mr. Reid’s Voice: Psyche and Soma.

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Music, when soft voices die

Posted by on Jun 19, 2012 | 1 comment

Music, when soft voices die
I’ve been listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s wonderful recording of some of Schubert’s Impromptus a great deal lately for they have the perfect combination of melancholy, longing and restrained passion to fit my turbulent mind and heart as I take care of my elderly mother.
Watching my mother slowly fade away is like being slowly tortured with a thousand tiny cuts, most not particularly painful at first until you look down and they seem to be everywhere. It is a cumulative pain, a dull ache that never quite leaves you.
I don’t understand any of it. I never imagined this scenario could happen to my once vibrant mother, once so full of life, so engaged in the world. Four years ago my greatest wish was for her to live when she was given a diagnosis of imminent death. And now…it still is, since although she is alive, she is not truly living. I long for the mother I used to know. I want to see that sparkle in her eyes again, the brilliant, loving gaze. The Impromptu No.3in Gb Major seems to be the soundtrack for all my powerful, conflicting emotions about this whole situation: the gentle but somewhat ominous rustling of the bass, the hauntingly hopeful repeated notes in the treble, the beautiful but dissonant high notes that seem to hang forever in the air before they resolve; fear, hope, loss, acceptance and overarching all of it, remembrance.
Amazing and wonderful the power music has- to heal, to inspire, to commiserate, to bolster, to bring catharsis.
Music and working on music helped me through the first shock of her illness four years ago. Watching the Ball State University students I was teaching at the time rehearse Into the Woods was incredibly cathartic. I hadn’t remembered the second act being so dark, so emotionally wrenching. But then again, maybe when I had first seen it at age 18, there was no reason for it to resonate so deeply with me as nothing truly serious had yet happened to me in my young life. Suddenly facing a life without my beloved mother, of being terrifyingly alone (I had not yet met my dearest Kenneth), Sondheim’s music and lyrics stunned me, tears flowing unbidden and unchecked as I sat in my seat in the dark, empty theatre, ostensibly taking notes on the singing. Night after night I sat in those rehearsals, experiencing loss, confusion, pain, and ultimately hope through his Cinderella, the Baker’s Wife, the Baker and the Witch. “No one is alone” destroyed me and put me back together again every time I heard it. Come to think of it, I saw the revival of Sunday in the Park with George during that same period, and “Move On” had me overwhelmed with emotion as well. I needed courage and hope for the future so badly and Mr. Sondheim provided them so elegantly in that song.
How much do I love that I started this post talking about Schubert and finished with Sondheim?!
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Find out who you are and do it on purpose. ~ Dolly Parton

Posted by on Jun 5, 2012 | 1 comment

Self-promotion has never been my strong suit; I actually tend towards the self-effacing. I will tell you readily all the terrible things people have said about me as a singer, but it is like pulling teeth for me to be forthcoming about the praise I have received. (Tsk tsk!) And as a classical musician, you are generally taught that your work will speak for itself. However, as I have learned inadvertently throughout my life and especially in the branding workshop I just completed, it doesn’t necessarily, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling the world about yourself and what you have to offer. In fact, it is essential that you do so. Greg Sandow’s branding workshop was brilliant and I learned so many valuable lessons from him and my fellow musicians, but the brightest blinking neon-sign message I took away from the experience is that all of us have something uniquely wonderful and valuable to offer this world and it is important that we get the word out about our unique contribution to the arts.
With that in mind, I would like to share two projects I have on tap for this summer that I am very excited about: I am teaching two series of Musical Theatre classes starting in a few weeks, one at Classic Tap DanceStudio and one at Keizer Academy of Music and Arts. All the particulars can be found on their respective websites. Students will learn to cultivate healthy vocal techniques to sing the wonderfully vast, diverse array of Musical Theatre repertoire, all the while developing a tool box of dynamic performing skills to make that repertoire come alive. It combines all my passions: teaching voice, coaching repertoire and creating exciting, interesting performances. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching the technical part of the voice lesson- nothing gives me more pleasure than helping someone discover and develop their uniquely beautiful and expressive instrument. But I admit that I especially look forward to working on repertoire, delving into the musicality of the piece, exploring the character, the nuances of diction and vocal expression. And I particularly like teaching studio/performance/master classes (call them what you will) where I can help singers craft a complete performance from how they sound, to how they look, to how they make the audience feel. There is an energy in the room when we (the student, the pianist and myself) are creating a beautiful, compelling performance that is exhilarating. It is such fun to be a part of- it’s contagious!
So, if you know anyone over the age of 13 who would like to take one of these classes, please send them my way! The more, the merrier!
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She’s called little Buttercup

Posted by on May 24, 2012 | 0 comments

She’s called little Buttercup
I am moved to brag about one of my students again, this time a brand new one: Christie Jungling just got the role of Buttercup in Pentacle Theatre’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore. I am so thrilled for her! We’ve been working together for five or six weeks and I couldn’t be happier with what we have accomplished in such a short time. However, I’m not really surprised because I knew before we ever had a lesson that she was smart, motivated, and extremely hard working, three important ingredients to successful teaching and learning. And as predicted, she is a fantastic student (as well as one of the loveliest, most supportive humans on the planet)! (As I joked with her, she does what I tell her to do! What a concept!) But seriously, Christie came to lessons with no agenda other than to improve and develop her voice, to finally find out her full potential as a singer. And she is well on her way. From the moment we started working together, she was completely open to trying all the new sounds and approaches to her voice and immediately her voice evolved and developed into a full, beautiful and expressive instrument. And then when we worked on the song she was preparing for the audition, she went all in, immediately applying everything we had worked on in the purely technical part of the lesson. She (seemingly effortlessly) combined all the new vocal stuff with the new musical stuff with the new acting stuff, all at the same time. See, it can be done! Her audition piece had all the essential elements: excellent singing, good diction, musicality, theatricality and clear, audibly interesting interpretation. I love working with talented, motivated people who not only participate in the process of developing their voice but enjoy that process as much as the results. It is so rewarding. I am so proud of her and have opening night tickets to see the show!
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How do we know it’s you?

Posted by on May 22, 2012 | 1 comment

How do we know it’s you?

I am all fired up! Today I had my first online branding webinar taught by Greg Sandow and my mind is reeling with ideas and possibilities. Today we talked about branding in general, how it works, examples of what works and what doesn’t in both the retail world as well as the Classical music world. The big question Greg wants us to ask ourselves is, How do we know it’s YOU?!

Who are you? What do you do? How does the person(a) and the work interact, intersect and intermingle? How do you articulate your message and present your “public face,” as one of the participants put so well, so that it is clear, organized, interesting?

So, a start on who am I? and what do I do?

I sing AND teach singing.

I am musical AND theatrical.

I love to sing AND teach equally. Furthermore, I sing as I teach and I teach how and what I sing.

I love to work in the genres of both Classical AND Musical Theatre.

I am silly AND passionate. (I first wrote “funny and serious” and while also true, I think the first two adjectives speak louder.)

It suddenly seems obvious to write the above sentences and yet I’ve never actually spoken of myself in such a forthright manner before.

I like it! “And that’s my new philosophy…”


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To thine own self be true

Posted by on May 3, 2012 | 1 comment

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about who Iam as an artist/singer/teacher and how to clearly and succinctly convey that to the world via my personal “brand.” This train of thought is all thanks to Greg Sandow and his terrific blog on the future of classical music; what does the future hold for this sadly fading art form and how to save it. As part of how to rescue classical music from the brink of extinction, he talks about how to brand oneself as an artist/performer! Whoa! WOW! His writing on this subject knocks my socks off! What a fantastic concept. He is teaching a whole class on it at Julliard! Is that not marvelous? Where was this stuff when I was in school? Not once in all of my eight years of higher education was this even mentioned, let alone did I have a class about it. Nothing remotely connected to the realities of pursuing a career in the performing arts was a part of the curriculum. (I understand this is finally changing, thank goodness!) Identifying what makes you special and therefore hireable as a performer was never discussed. It was assumed that singing well was all you really needed to be able to do and that somehow the other stuff would just fall into place. (It doesn’t.) When I was a student, you spent every waking moment studying the music and the composers and practicing said composers’ great music with your instrument of choice but never what to do with all that knowledge and skill once you left the hallowed halls of the school. So when you graduated, you knew how to sing Mozart and who he was and when he wrote and how he wrote and why this chord was in this measure in that aria … but not how any of it will translate into the real world of you developing into an artist who is lucky enough to sing his glorious music on a stage for money!

And for me it only got worse when I was out of school. Cornelius was (and therefore so was I) myopically focused on striving for vocal perfection, a noble pursuit certainly, but unfortunately to the exclusion of what was just as important and what I now consider just as essential: developing the whole package of me as a unique artist with a unique talent and a unique persona to offer to the profession.

So, who am I? What exactly is my unique performing and teaching persona? I’ve been continually asking and partially answering that question for decades now and this blog is helping me articulate it for the first time ever. I am also very excited that in a few weeks I am going to take Mr. Sandow’s online branding seminar to further the discovery process. I have always had an idea of who and what I am (and wanted to be) as a performer (and lately as a teacher) and what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it but never could fully express it clearly to myself or others. I tried for too long to be everything and anything as a performer just to get the job or please the teacher, too often ignoring my instincts and true desires. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that the singing and teaching projects I’ve been most successful at and that filled me with the most joy and satisfaction have always aligned with those inner cravings: to be creative, accessible, entertaining, theatrical, and working in both the classical and Musical Theatre repertoire.

So why is all this important?

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

-Polonius, Hamlet, Act I, scene 3

I found this explanation of the above quote which I quite like: “By ‘false’ Polonius seems to mean ‘disadvantageous’ or ‘detrimental to your image’; by ‘true’ he means ‘loyal to your own best interests.’ Take care of yourself first, he counsels, and that way you’ll be in a position to take care of others.”

By discovering and embracing my true, honest and most creative artistic/musical self, I am able to offer my audiences an authentic musical and theatrical experience that will hopefully inspire them as much as the material I perform inspires me. And for my students, I will be able to help them develop their unique performing, musical and vocal persona even better than I do now.  Sounds like a win-win! On to the discovery process…updates as events warrant!

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