Our voice is us.

Amy Cheifetz Billings - Voice Studio

If Florence can do it, so can you!

Posted by on Jul 9, 2018 | 0 comments

[I wrote this in September of 2016. For some reason I never published it. Here it is, as timely as ever.]

I was first introduced to Florence Foster Jenkins in college when my music history professor played her infamous album in class. As a teenager studying opera, naturally I found her hilarious and laughed mercilessly along with my peers. I remember marveling at her audacity to actually record those awful sounds. Didn’t she know how hideous she sounded? Why did no one tell her “no!”? But, twenty-plus years later, as an adult who spent twenty years pursuing an operatic career, my view of her as pathetic and laughable had changed. I had since read a little about her history, and now found her more of a tragic figure than risible. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see the movie about her life. I thought it would make relentless fun of her. I thought it would bring up old demons. I thought it would move me to tears for the tragedy of her story, the fears and failures of my own. I did cry, but not for those reasons at all. My tears were those of sympathy, of empathy, of understanding and comradery. I was crying with her and for her. The end…oh the end is just so beautiful, poignant and profound. I won’t spoil it any further- just go watch it! (It’s on Amazon Prime right now.) Thanks to the masterful performances of Meryl Streep as Florence and Hugh Grant as her husband, I saw her passion, the love and devotion to her art, to music, to the importance of music in the world. I felt the love and devotion that kept her loved ones from saying no; their fierce desire to make her happy and protect her dreams. Yes, there are many moments of hilarity: her singing is indeed absurd, her diction non-existent, her costumes ludicrous. The voice lesson montage is a thing of comic genius. That is how they sold the film, as a comedy. But like most good comedies, it is oh so much more than that. I left the theatre feeling intensely moved. I had a renewed understanding that devotion to people, ideas and activities that you love is what life is all about.

This film also changed the way I think about teaching and studying singing. I always try to nurture love and passion for the art form in my students, but often I wonder, with the ones who really struggle, am I doing them a favor by continuing to teach them when sometimes it seems…hopeless? I have never turned anyone away because of an apparent lack of talent, because you never know! Everyone grows on their own timeline. But doubts remained. I always asked myself, was it kinder to tell them or kinder not to? Florence has helped me to see that what I think matters not at all. If they love it, if they truly love it, they should be allowed and encouraged to pursue it in any way they can. And my job is to help them to the utmost of my abilities and with my full passion for the endeavor in evidence. As Florence (and I) have found out, the world can be terribly cruel and will do its best to knock that passion and love right out of you. There are far too many people out there ready and willing to tear you down. No, they don’t have to hire you or cast you; not everyone will encourage you and support you. But someone will, and those are the ones you listen to. And of course, we must love and support OURSELVES first and foremost. If Florence can do it, so can the rest of us mere mortals.

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There are signs everywhere

Posted by on Jun 27, 2018 | 6 comments

I’ve stopped singing. I hope it’s temporary… I think it’s temporary. I WANT it to be temporary.

I have been singing since I can remember. I sang along with my mom’s original cast recordings on LP from birth practically. Listening to and impersonating Julie Andrews in Camelot and My Fair Lady, Barbara Cook in The Music Man, Ethel Merman in Anything Goes and even Alfred Drake in Kiss Me, Kate, was my idea of an afternoon of fun. And without realizing it, I was getting a free education in not just fabulous vocal production, but phrasing, musicality, diction, nuance, color, emotion, drama, and heart. And then there were the glorious technicolor movie musicals to watch and sing along to- Doris Day in Calamity Jane, Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma!… the list goes on and on. The joy was endless.

But now, not only do I not sing, ever, I don’t listen to anything either. Silence reigns. Except in my head, where there is a whole lot of screaming going on.

So what happened? Life intervened… interfered. Serious, grown up issues took over. Worry, sadness, grief, fear. Fear, fear, fear, and fear sneaked in and infiltrated my psyche, knocking my love of singing, of music, of making art through music to the bottom rung; off the bottom rung.

And now I feel the lack of it keenly. Like I’ve lost a limb. I now live in a musical desert of my own making with no compass to find my way out.

And it’s been just long enough- going on over two years- that I’m afraid to start again. What am I afraid of? Failure. That I can’t do it. That my voice just won’t do it. Won’t be the same, or worse, won’t work at all. Maybe I’ve forgotten how. Maybe no one will want to hear me. Maybe…

And maybe I should just stop all this nonsense, stop letting fear be my guide and just sing, for Heaven’s sake! That’s what I would tell my students. That’s what I DO tell them. That it is never too late, to never say never, to always follow your heart, your passion… TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE NO MATTER WHAT. To find a way, start SOMEWHERE, anywhere. What are you waiting for? And I believe those things. Physician, heal thyself!

Which brings me to all of THE SIGNS that have been popping up lately to knock some sense into this muddled head of mine.

First there was a line from a book I had never read from one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard- I don’t even remeber where I saw it now. I read the whole book (An American Childhood, which was excellent, by the way), just to find that ONE LINE. The one line that shone out at me like a flashing neon bulb: “…you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself.”

And then there was another favorite author, Elizabeth Gilbert (naturally, cause she’s always a fount of wisdom for me) who wrote in an article, “So the trick to happiness, then, is to find something that absorbs you and become that thing by pursuing it with devoted attention. In order for this this trick to work, however, your only motive for the pursuit must be pure love.”

And then Mary Oliver chimed in with “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” And then a new inspirational author, Tama Kieves dealt the final blow: “Remember what you knew when you were on fire, not when you were tired. Stay faithful to what you knew when you were most alive. Those are your diamonds.”

Yeah.

I didn’t have to think too hard to remember when I was last “on fire.” It was in April 2016 when I did Marry Me a Little with wonderful friends and colleagues in Salem, Oregon. From that January when I started learning the music to well after the show ended in April, I was inspired and excited 24/7. The music, the lyrics, the practicing, the performing- the act of creating art fired me up and filled me with a joy I can still remember two years later.

I’ve been tired for too long. I’ve allowed myself to be tired, beaten down and defeated for far, far too long. As Kahlil Gibran said, “And God said ‘Love your Enemy,’ and I obeyed him and loved myself.”

I am certainly my own worst enemy and therefore I must start loving myself by doing what I love: singing.

I love it. I always have. I loved it as a child, I loved it as an adult. I loved it even when I hated the circumstances in which I was doing it. I love it now. Still. Through the fear, I love it. The few times recently I have had the inspiration and temerity to listen to something- Bernadette Peters singing “No One Is Alone” at Carnegie Hall, “Lost in the Stars” by Kurt Weill- I ended up in tears and turned it off before the song was over. And once last month I felt moved to actually sing myself and ended up singing “Warm All Over” from The Most Happy Fella through my tears. MORE SIGNS.

Singing, music- they are my diamonds, my lifelong passions, both public and private.

I love it. I NEED to do it. For MY SELF.

And so, I will.

Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A new chapter

Posted by on Feb 28, 2018 | 1 comment

A new chapter

Is it possible I have not blogged in over three years?! Absurd. But never mind… I am at the beginning of a new chapter of my life and thus a new blog post!

There has been one enormous change since my last post in September of 2014. I no longer live in Salem, Oregon. My husband and I have just this month, February 2018, settled into a beautiful rental house (built around 1915) in Summerville, South Carolina, 22 miles west of Charleston.

Leaving Oregon was terribly hard: heart breaking, tearful, wrenchingly emotional. Leaving that wonderful, loving community of friends, leaving our beautiful 1859 home…. Striking out into the unknown… One of the most difficult things either of us has ever done. And yet, leave we did, for many good reasons. My husband, who so selflessly and lovingly moved to Oregon in February of 2011 to help me take care of my elderly mother, desired to see his family more than once a year. And since my dear parents are no longer on this earth, it was time for us to be closer to his family. So we sold our house and set off across the country to find a new home.

Yes, we drove all 5000+ miles! We drove south through Oregon and California and then made a left. We basically followed the old Route 66 through Arizona (the Grand Canyon!), New Mexico (Santa Fe!), the panhandle of Texas, and Oklahoma, then Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually back to South Carolina. Charleston and Summerville charmed us with all the history, architecture, culture, cuisine, proximity to the ocean, trees, and warmer temperatures (ok, that was on my husband’s plus list, not mine. I think I might melt this summer…).

And so, a new chapter, a Southern adventure begins!

And as soon as my piano arrives, I will be open for business again, via Skype and in person. Singing should sound great in this historic home with all its heart pine floors and high ceilings!

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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